Iraq's Unpredictable Politics


Introspection is not the purpose of this occasional column, but a moment of it seems appropriate in the wake of the election recently held in Iraq. That election might have been a blood-soaked fiasco, aborted by insurgent forces. It might have been a nonevent, with sparse turnout and sullen voters. It might have been well attended but still inexpressive and mysterious, a merely formal exercise whose meaning was hard to interpret. But none of these eventualities – which pretty much represented the range of my expectations – transpired. Instead, the election was a full-throated, long-suppressed cry by millions of oppressed and abused people against tyranny, torture, terrorism, penury, anarchy and war, and an ardent appeal for freedom, peace, order and ordinary life.

I had not thought that, two years after Saddam Hussein's fall, such a powerful current of longing could well up. I did not believe that an election with 7,000 candidates, most of whose identities were secret, could inspire such enthusiasm. Above all, I did not believe that so many Iraqis, whose dislike of the American occupation is wide and deep, would seize an opportunity provided in part by that same occupation to express their desires with such clarity and force. On the contrary, I thought that national pride – one of the most powerful forces of modern times – would prevent it.

But express themselves the voters did, with compressed, elemental eloquence. What impressed was not turnout, which remains unknown, especially in Sunni areas; it was the demeanor and comments of those who did vote. A woman in Baghdad explained to the New York Times, "A hundred names on the ballot are better than one, because it means that we are free." Another woman in Baghdad said to the Washington Post, "We were sad for a long time and this is the first happiness we ever had."

The election was a direct, powerfully expressed and articulated rebuke to car-bombers, kidnappers and beheaders. "Enough fear," a woman in Baghdad said. "Let us breathe the air of freedom." A man in Najaf whose father had been killed by Saddam's regime said, "My father helped bring this election today." People brought their children. A man accompanied by his son said, "I expect he will be voting many times." Another man said, "How much those terrorists hate the Iraqis. They were trying to kill us just because we want to do the thing we like to do." Many voters spoke with deep emotion. A man told the Los Angeles Times , "I kissed the ballot box." Another said to the New York Times, "People have been thirsting for these elections, as if it was a wedding."

There was, I confess, a momentary temptation for someone like me, who has opposed the war from the start and believed it would lead to nothing good, simply to scant the importance of the event, or react to it defensively, or speed past it on the way back to an uneasy confirmation of previous views. But the impulse passed. After all, hadn't I been irked that the war's promoters, including the President, had refused to admit a mistake when they had not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when they had failed to foresee the insurgency that soon broke out after Baghdad was taken, when American forces, encouraged by memos penned at the top levels of the Administration, had committed widespread acts of torture? More important, when masses of ordinary people act with courage to express deep and positive longings, shouldn't one give them their due? But most important of all, wasn't full acknowledgment of the magnitude of the event necessary for any real understanding of what might happen next in Iraq?

The first question for me, therefore, has to be how a decidedly popular election occurred under the auspices of a decidedly unpopular occupation. That unpopularity cannot be doubted. It was manifested in opinion polls (for instance, in May a poll taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority found that 92 percent of Iraqis saw American forces as "occupiers" and only 2 percent saw them as "liberators"), but also in the statements of most Iraqi leaders not actually participating in the interim government approved by the occupation. The most significant of them were leaders of the Shiite Muslims, who make up almost two-thirds of the population in Iraq and who came to be represented in the election mainly by the party called the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

Before the vote, the Shiite leadership's position had been clear: It demanded the withdrawal of American forces after the election. Yet as Trudy Rubin has reported in the Gulf Times , the UIA has dropped its demand for a speedy, timed withdrawal, now asking only for "an Iraq which is capable of guaranteeing its security and borders without depending on foreign troops." Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, an alliance member, told Rubin, "If the United States pulls out too fast, there would be chaos."

The story of this reversal perhaps began in January 2004, when the spiritual leader of the Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, announced his opposition to an indecipherably complex American plan to hold eighteen regional caucuses, which would then choose a national assembly. Sistani demanded direct elections for the assembly instead. He may or may not have been a true believer in democracy, but he certainly understood that in any democratic vote Shiites would win power, reversing several centuries of rule by the Sunni Muslims, who make up only about 20 percent of Iraq's population.

The Bush Administration balked. Sistani insisted. He made a show of strength by summoning hundreds of thousands of Shiites to demonstrations in Basra and Baghdad in support of his plan. He called for an end to the occupation as soon as the vote was held. The demonstrators in Basra chanted, "No, no to conspiracies. No, no to occupation," and "No to America, no to Saddam, no to colonialism." The Bush Administration, afraid of further estranging two-thirds of the population of Iraq, acquiesced.

Having brought the Administration to heel, Sistani next faced a challenge from within Shiite ranks. In spring 2004, the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launched an armed insurrection against the occupation. Sistani stood by while American forces badly bloodied Sadr's forces in several weeks of fighting in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, and then he successfully summoned both sides to join in a truce in which the forces of both were withdrawn from the city. He granted a meeting to Sadr, who offered a guarded fealty. At the same time, Sistani expressed a sort of vague acceptance of Sadr's enemy, the US- and UN-appointed interim government.

Still another potential challenge to Sistani's plan was the largely Sunni insurgency, heavily concentrated in the city of Falluja. When, after a long delay, American forces attacked Falluja, Sistani again stood aside; but this time, he made no offer to broker a truce or mutual troop withdrawals. Falluja was bombed, emptied of most of its people, invaded and occupied.

Sistani's stance toward the occupation had now become at least implicitly equivocal. Having defied the United States in the matter of the election, he had twice stood by while American forces battered internal enemies – first Sadr, then the Sunni Fallujan rebels. Even as he was offering the elections as a means of ending the occupation, he was relying on the occupation to make the elections happen.

Then yet another danger to the election took shape, this time in the form of bloody attacks largely by Sunni insurgents upon Shiites specifically, including one of Sistani's aides. Sistani acted once again to defend his plan – this time imposing a remarkable and impressive restraint on his followers, who did not retaliate. Had they done so, he certainly knew, the country might have descended into civil war, and the elections would have been ruined. The Sunnis could still boycott the voting, and the great majority of them reportedly did, but they failed to stop it entirely.

In sum, the election on January 30 – conceived by Sistani, forced upon a reluctant Bush Administration by Sistani, and defended by Sistani (in concert with American forces) against both Shiite and Sunni insurrections – was first and foremost a kind of Shiite uprising. It was an astonishingly successful revolt against subjugation and repression that Shiites have suffered in Iraq at the hands of foreigners and domestic minorities alike. That this uprising took the form of a peaceful election rather than a bloody rebellion is owing to the shrewdness, and possibly the wisdom, of Sistani.

The results of the election, though incomplete at this writing, confirm that it was above all a Shiite event. As expected, Shiite and Kurdish turnout was reportedly high, Sunni turnout low. The joy the world witnessed at the polling places was mostly Shiite joy. (If Kurds were less effusive, it was because they had long been the de facto masters of their territory.)

What the election was not was a decision by "the Iraqi people." It's not even clear that at this moment there is such a thing as the Iraqi people. Opinion among scholars and others is divided on the point. Iraq is a nation without a constitution (it is governed by a Transitional Administrative Law) and without a state. If some observers are correct, it is also a nation without a nation. Its three major groups – the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – lack the common ties, these scholars say, required for nationhood and have merely been forced to live in a single polity, first by the British and then by Saddam. (It's notable that Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, took the occasion of the election to comment that he hopes to see an independent Kurdistan in his lifetime.) Other observers argue that genuine national feeling still can unite the groups.

It's significant – and discouraging – that Sistani's first act after the election was to signal through aides that all Iraqi law should be founded in Islamic law. For all his tactical sagacity, he may turn out to belong to the long list of leaders able to win power but unable to found a just new order. All the parties express a desire to avoid civil war, but there is a distinct possibility that what the vote strengthened was not "the Iraqi people" but each of the subgroups. The high vote of the Shiites and the low vote of the Sunnis may have carried the same message: When all is said and done, we are more faithful to the interest of our own group than to a unified Iraq.

The very steps Sistani took to achieve the Shiite electoral triumph may turn out to have fatally undermined any future government. When he acquiesced in the smashing of Falluja, he passed up an opportunity for national solidarity that may not come soon again. The danger for the Shiite leadership is that by associating themselves with an occupying power, they will – even among many Shiites – throw away the legitimacy that the election has just given them. Then all hopes, including those so movingly expressed on January 30, will have been betrayed.

It's in this radically unpredictable and rapidly developing context that the question of the future of the American occupation must be considered. There can be no doubt that the election was a rebellion by the Shiites against their traditional oppressors in Iraq. Was it also a rebellion against the occupation? For all the eloquence of the voters at the polls, they gave little clue on this point. In the coverage I saw, there was much gratitude for voting but little or no love for Americans. The scene of the Iraqi woman kissing the mother of the slain American soldier occurred in Washington at the State of the Union address, not in Iraq. Some voters said that their vote had been against the occupation as well as past tyranny, but they also were few.

Since the invasion, Americans have been absorbed in the debate over whether U.S. troops should remain in Iraq ("stay the course") or leave. The issue of the moment is whether the commitment should be open-ended or, as I believe, limited by a deadline for withdrawal. The danger for the United States in staying is that it will wind up on one side of a civil war that its presence will continually exacerbate but be unable to quell. This American debate is crucial, but now a prior question pushes to the fore. Will the new leadership of Iraq invite American troops to stay or ask them to leave?

The rudiments of a new governing authority in Iraq have appeared for the first time since the war that felled Saddam. It's unknowable whether such an authority can surmount the sectarian divisions it faces – in effect, creating an Iraqi nation – or, if it does succeed, whether it will invite American forces to remain. What we can know is that from now on it is Iraqis, not Americans, who will be making the most fundamental decisions in their country.

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