Die Now, Vote Later
P. Diddy announced on the weekend that his "Vote or Die" campaign will live on. The hip hop mogul's voter registration drive during the U.S. presidential elections was, he said, merely "phase one, step one for us to get people engaged."
Fantastic. I have a suggestion for phase two: P. Diddy, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the self-described "Coalition of the Willing" should take their chartered jet and fly to Fallujah, where their efforts are desperately needed. But first they are going to need to flip the slogan from "Vote or Die!" to "Die, Then Vote!"
Because that is what is happening there. Escape routes have been sealed off, homes are being demolished, and an emergency health clinic has been razed – all in the name of preparing the city for January elections. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S.-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi explained that the all-out attack was required "to safeguard lives, elections and democracy in Iraq."
With all the millions spent on "democracy-building" and "civil society" in Iraq, it has come to this: If you can survive attack by the world's only superpower, you get to cast a ballot. Fallujans are going to vote, goddammit, even if they all have to die first.
And make no mistake: they are Fallujans under the gun. "The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Fallujah," Marine Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl told the BBC. Well, at least he admitted that some of the fighters actually live in Fallujah, unlike Donald Rumsfeld, who would have us believe that they are all from Syria and Jordan. And since U.S. army vehicles are blaring recordings forbidding all men between the ages of 15 and 50 from leaving the city, it would suggest that there are at least a few Iraqis among what CNN now obediently describes as the "anti-Iraqi forces."
Elections in Iraq were never going to be peaceful, but they did not need to be an all-out war on voters either. Mr. Allawi's Rocket the Vote campaign is the direct result of a disastrous decision made exactly one year ago. On Nov. 11, 2003, Paul Bremer, then chief U.S. envoy to Iraq, flew to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush. The two men were concerned that if they kept their promise to hold elections in Iraq within the coming months, the country would fall into the hands of insufficiently pro-American forces.
That would defeat the purpose of the invasion, and it would threaten President Bush's re-election chances. At that meeting, a revised plan was hatched: Elections would be delayed for more than a year and in the meantime, Iraq's first "sovereign" government would be hand-picked by Washington. The plan would allow Mr. Bush to claim progress on the campaign trail, while keeping Iraq safely under U.S. control.
In the U.S., Mr. Bush's claim that "freedom is on the march" served its purpose, but in Iraq, the plan led directly to the carnage we see today. George Bush likes to paint the forces opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq as enemies of democracy. In fact, much of the uprising can be traced directly to decisions made in Washington to stifle, repress, delay, manipulate and otherwise thwart the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people.
Yes, democracy has genuine opponents in Iraq, but before George Bush and Paul Bremer decided to break their central promise to hand over power to an elected Iraqi government, these forces were isolated and contained. That changed when Mr. Bremer returned to Baghdad and tried to convince Iraqis that they weren't yet ready for democracy.
Mr. Bremer argued the country was too insecure to hold elections, and besides, there were no voter rolls. Few were convinced. In January, 2003, 100,000 Iraqis peacefully took to the streets of Baghdad, with 30,000 more in Basra. Their chant was "Yes, yes elections. No, no selections." At the time, many argued that Iraq was safe enough to have elections and pointed out that the lists from the Saddam-era oil-for-food program could serve as voter rolls. But Mr. Bremer wouldn't budge and the UN – scandalously and fatefully – backed him up.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Hussain al-Shahristani, chairman of the standing committee of the Iraqi National Academy of Science (who was imprisoned under Saddam Hussein for 10 years), accurately predicted what would happen next. "Elections will be held in Iraq, sooner or later," wrote Mr. al-Shahristani. "The sooner they are held, and a truly democratic Iraq is established, the fewer Iraqi and American lives will be lost."
Ten months and thousands of lost Iraqi and American lives later, elections are scheduled to take place with part of the country in grips of yet another invasion and much of the rest of it under martial law. As for the voter rolls, the Allawi government is planning to use the oil-for-food lists, just as was suggested and dismissed a year ago.
So it turns out that all of the excuses were lies: if elections can be held now, they most certainly could have been held a year ago, when the country was vastly calmer. But that would have denied Washington the change to install a puppet regime in Iraq, and possibly prevented George Bush from winning a second term.
Is it any wonder that Iraqis are skeptical of the version of democracy being delivered to them by U.S. troops, or that elections have come to be seen not as tools of liberation but as weapons of war? First, Iraq's promised elections were sacrificed in the interest of George Bush's re-election hopes; next, the siege of Fallujah itself was crassly shackled to these same interests. The fighter planes didn't even wait an hour after George Bush finished his acceptance speech to begin the air attack on Fallujah, with the city bombed at least six times through the next day and night. With the U.S. elections safely over, Fallujah could be destroyed in the name of its own the upcoming elections.
In another demonstration of their commitment to freedom, the first goal of the U.S. soldiers in Fallujah was to ambush the city's main hospital. Why? Apparently because it was the source of the "rumours" about high civilian casualties the last time U.S. troops laid siege to Fallujah, sparking outrage in Iraq and across the Arab world. "It's a centre of propaganda," an unnamed senior American officer told The New York Times. Without doctors to count the dead, the outrage would be presumably be muted – except that, of course, the attacks on hospitals have sparked their own outrage, further jeopardizing the legitimacy of the upcoming elections.
According to The New York Times, the Fallujah General Hospital was easy to capture, since the doctors and patients put up no resistance. There was, however, one injury, "an Iraqi soldier who accidentally discharged his Kalashnikov rifle, injuring his lower leg."
I think that means he shot himself in the foot. He's not the only one.