Rahul Mahajan

We Told You So

Last week, the "Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction" issued what may be the last in a series of in-depth reports by U.S. government on the "intelligence failures" surrounding the invasion of Iraq.

Wade through the close to 3,000 pages of these reports and one conclusion is inescapable: those of us who opposed the invasion of Iraq were right on every count.

We knew that the Bush administration's case of war was no more than a mish-mash of evasion, misdirection, and outright lies -- and we didn't need the vast resources of these investigative commissions to figure it out. The evidence – be it in the form of intelligence leaks, news reporting (though less often in the U.S. and rarely on the front page), or congressional testimony -- was out in the open for all to see.

The al Qaeda Connection

In the lead up to the war, Bush administration officials constantly insinuated a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and even the 9/11 attacks. Vice President Cheney, over and again, referred to a cock-and-bull story about a Prague meeting between Mohammed Atta and the Iraqi intelligence. The Atta story was debunked in The New York Times as early as October 2002 – more than four months before the invasion.

The other "damning" piece of evidence of this al Qaeda connection was a sighting of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad. As it turns out, the only person who helped out Zarqawi was George Bush. By eliminating Saddam, the U.S. has created a power vacuum that has made Zarqawi a major player in post-war Iraq. There was never any evidence emerged that he was getting resources, assistance, or cover from the old regime. The 9/11 commission later confirmed that there was absolutely no evidence linking Iraq to al Qaeda.

The N-Bomb Scare

Starting in August 2002, Dick Cheney and others raised the specter of Iraq armed with a nuclear bomb, ready to take out New York or Atlanta. On March 16, 2003, Cheney even said, of Saddam, "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

According to the WMD Commission report, the CIA believed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapon program – which is still quite different from actually having nuclear weapons. But even this modified judgment was based on controversial evidence, such as the presence of a certain kind of aluminum tubes. As news reports before the invasion show, intelligence analysts were split over these tubes; where the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency thought they were designed to serve as uranium-enrichment centrifuges, the State Department and the Department of Energy were convinced they were conventional artillery shells.

The latter were right, but we didn't need to wait for the WMD report to tell us that. The International Atomic Energy Association's Mohammed el Baradei told The Washington Post exactly that in January, 2003: "It may be technically possible that the tubes could be used to enrich uranium, but you would have to believe that Iraq deliberately ordered the wrong stock and intended to spend a great deal of time and money reworking each piece." He repeated his assessments with even greater force in a report to the U.N. on March 7 – two weeks before the invasion.

There is, of course, also the now long-debunked claim made by President Bush in his January, 2003 State of Union speech – the claim that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from Niger.

In February 2003, IAEA inspectors – having finally gained access to the Niger documents – pointed out that they were very crude forgeries, a fact that was covered in some newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, well before the war. The Bush administration did not, however, abandon its claim until six months later, when former Ambassador Joe Wilson revealed that the administration knew there was no evidence of any attempt to buy uranium a full year before the Bush speech.

What WMDs?

As the WMD commission report reveals, when it came to Saddam's much-touted biological weapons program, the Bush administration relied entirely on "evidence" provided by an Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball." He provided over 100 detailed reports, claiming, for example, that Iraq had mobile biological weapons laboratories.

Opponents of the war repeatedly challenged these claims, pointing out that such labs if they existed would be unbelievably dangerous. Moreover, there was no evidence of their existence since U.N. inspectors on the ground found little proof to back his assertions. At the time, Curveball's German handlers warned U.S. intelligence analysts that he was unreliable and most likely an outright liar. He even showed up drunk for a meeting. Although several reports of his unreliability were sent up the chain of command, the administration continued to treat his pronouncements as gospel.

The Bush administration's claims about Iraq's biological warfare capabilities also reveal that the errors surrounding the decision to invade Iraq entailed not just "faulty intelligence," but outright deception. How else to characterize Bush's claim on Oct. 7, 2002, that Saddam was planning to "target" the United States with his vaunted "unmanned aerial vehicles? As his own Air Force experts had pointed out at the time, these vehicles only had a limited range of which had a claimed range of only 400 miles and were not even big enough to carry such a payload.

Name the Elephant

For the most part, the latest report does not tell us anything we did not already know. Since early 2004, when the David Kay report offered the initial findings of the Iraq Survey Group, various government investigations have confirmed that Iraq simply was not a threat to the United States. There was the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission reports issued in July, followed in October by the Duelfer report that summed up the final conclusions of the Iraq Survey Group.

Yet none of these reports – including this latest version – is willing to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the debate over Iraq, i.e. the complicity of the Bush administration in creating this so-called "intelligence failure." The WMD Commission concludes that intelligence analysts found what they wanted to find rather than being guided by the facts. But it carefully makes a point of any wrongdoing on the part of the administration: "The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments."

Similarly, the commission reserves particularly harsh criticism for the way the president's "Daily Brief" is prepared, characterizing them as "more alarmist and less nuanced" than longer reports, such as the famously flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. Their "attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition" supposedly gave top officials the impression that dramatic claims were much better sourced and heavily corroborated than, in fact, they were.

The commission clearly does its best to lend credence to the Bush White House's self-serving rationale: a scaremongering intelligence community stampeded the administration into war. How odd that a president who went on vacation when confronted with an earlier such "attention-grabbing headline" in an Aug. 6, 2001 PDB -- "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S." -- should be so easily scared.

Those of us who knew better in opposing the invasion of Iraq know better now. We know that "intelligence failure" is just a neat rhetorical device to shift the blame from the coterie of top officials who deliberately deceived us into a war to the intelligence agencies who were pressured to come up with those lies. The WMD commission was not created to help us arrive at the truth, but to head off any chance of a serious investigation into the administration's wrongdoings.

So in the end, the commission did its job well. It's unfortunate that its job was a political cover-up.

The Bush Definition of Democracy

When Vladimir Putin used illegal tactics to engineer the election of his hand-picked subordinate Ahmad Kadyrov as president of Chechnya last October, Western pundits were quick to condemn the election as a farce. Yet the same media talking heads have expressed little outrage at the series of equally farcical "elections" organized by the Bush administration in the name of exporting democracy, be it to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani recently expressed his unhappiness at the plans of the main U.S.-affiliated political parties to negotiate a "consensus slate" of candidates for the upcoming U.N. Security Council-mandated elections in Iraq.

In some countries, with a well-established parliamentary system and a history of active political parties and an inclusive public discourse, alliances between political parties are not necessarily a problem. In India, for example, such electoral alliances may be necessary to get smaller parties some degree of parliamentary representation. In Iraq, however, the effect may be extremely damaging.

According to a recent New York Times editorial, such a "consensus" slate could create "essentially a one-party election unless Iraq's fragmented independents manage to organize themselves into an effective new political force." Without adequate safeguards, wrote the Times, in an uncharacteristically direct manner, "Iraq's first free election may look uncomfortably like the plebiscites choreographed to produce 98 percent majorities for Saddam Hussein."

While the Times neglected to mention this fact, the Bush administration has established a track record of managing elections to produce such lopsided results for its favored candidates first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

During the June 2002 Afghan loya jirga, roughly 1500 delegates assembled to pick the interim president of the country. Although all delegates were under a great degree of pressure from U.S.-backed warlords (who did everything from killing delegates before the assembly to controlling the floor at the assembly), over 800 signed a statement in support of Zahir Shah, the exiled monarch. Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, delegates to the loya jirga, told the New York Times that the United States then stepped in and "the entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government." When the assembly resumed, delegates were given a choice between Hamid Karzai and two unknown candidates thrown into the field purely for symbolic value (For example, one of them was a woman).

More recently, the Bush administration has been busy altering the timetable of Afghanistan's elections to meet its own needs. It has pressured the Afghan Electoral Commission to delay the parliamentary elections until next April but push through the presidential elections in October. The plan is clearly to ensure that there will be no time for anyone to emerge as a national-level alternative to Hamid Karzai as the president.

Of the current 18 candidates, only Yunus Qanooni enjoys significant name recognition and no one considers him to pose a credible challenge to Karzai. Even so, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (who is closely linked with neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz) has using coercion and bribery to pressure candidates – be it Qanooni or Mohammed Mohaqiq, who represents the minority Hazaras – to drop out of the race. Qanooni and 13 other candidates recently came together to devise strategies to deal with Khalilzad's bullying.

The U.S. record in Iraq is not much different. The administration has touted the local elections held under the aegis of the U.S. occupation as evidence of its democratic intentions. But the rhetoric far outstrips the reality. In many instances, the "election" consisted of the appointment of the mayor and/or city council members by the local U.S. commander, sometimes to disastrous effect. For example, the U.S. appointed a Sunni from Baghdad to be mayor of the mostly Shi'a Najaf, cancelled an election he would surely have lost, but later had to remove him from office because of charges of corruption and Ba'athist links.

In Basra, British and U.S. forces appointed local officials to power only to get rid of them later, deciding instead to allow Iraqis to only fill technocratic positions rather than award them political power. In Kirkuk, only 300 delegates, all hand picked and vetted by U.S. forces, were allowed to vote in the "election."

In late June, 2003, U.S. commanders ordered a halt to all local elections. The problem: people and groups opposed to the occupation were expected to win in many of the races. A few days later, Paul Bremer approved resumption of elections, but allowed U.S. commanders to choose between appointing local officials, electing them by specially vetted caucuses, or holding a real election. Not coincidentally, the new policy allows U.S. authorities to choose the form of "election" based on the likelihood of getting the result they want.

Of course, irrespective of method of selection, the U.S. commanders can always countermand any city council decision and dissolve a council if they so chose.

At the national level, the situation in Iraq has been similarly manipulated. To begin with, elections have been postponed repeatedly, even though it would be easier to create voter rolls in Iraq than it was in Afghanistan (For example, the ubiquitous ration cards could have been used as a basis for voter identification and registration). If now a definite date has been set for January, 2005, its only because other countries on the Security Council made it a condition for approving Resolution 1546, on the so-called "transfer of sovereignty."

Meanwhile, however, numerous other aspects of the political process have been either eliminated or undermined. In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, Paul Bremer canceled an assembly of members of the Iraqi opposition – mostly U.S.-designated, exile groups – planned for June 2003. His reason: the "opposition" was not representative of the country. A month later, Bremer would handpick 25 people, 16 of whom were exiles, to form the Iraqi Governing Council.

In August, a national conference of nearly 1300 delegates met to determine the makeup of the 100-member interim National Assembly, whose formation was mandated by the "transfer of sovereignty" process. Ostensibly picked by democratic processes by their local districts, the delegates certainly did represent a wide variety of parties and views, although major groups opposed to the occupation were under-represented (Moqtada al-Sadr, whose organization was battling the U.S. military in Najaf at the time, boycotted the conference).

However, the delegates at the conference soon learned that the entire process of selection was a giant sham. They would be presented with a pre-selected slate of 81 candidates (the 19 members of the IGC having been given automatic membership in the assembly), chosen as a result of back-room negotiations between the major U.S.-affiliated parties. Attempts by small parties to form an alternative slate fell through. In the end, the U.S.-backed slate was not even presented to the delegates for formal approval.

We Americans tend to use words like "freedom" and "democracy" in a purely talismanic manner, without attaching any actual meaning to them – only thus could the coups in Guatemala in 1954 or in Haiti in 2004 be hailed as advances for democracy. But the current White House takes this attitude to an unprecedented extreme. Time and again, the Bush administration has shown that it is willing to hold elections in Afghanistan or Iraq, but only when it can control the outcome beyond the shadow of a doubt. There is no reason to believe that the January elections in Iraq will be any different.

Opening the Gates of Hell

Before the Iraq war, at a meeting of the Arab League, Secretary General Amr Moussa famously said that a U.S. war on Iraq would "open the gates of hell." In Iraq, those gates are yawning wider than ever before -- at least for the United States.

"Sunni and Shi'a are now one hand, together against the Americans," says a man on the street in the mostly Shi'a slum of Shuala on the west side of Baghdad, standing in the shadow of a burnt-out American tank transporter.

These sentiments are echoed at the local headquarters of Moqtada al-Sadr's organization, which had come under assault from U.S. forces the day before. Indeed, everyone in the area agrees that Sunni and Shi'a fought together to beat back the military -- and they were unorganized local inhabitants, not al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, as the Paul Bremer-led CPA would claim.

Whether or not the resistance here grows to a scale that the United States cannot control -- and such a development depends more on the moderate Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani than of Paul Bremer or George Bush -- it is already clear that the events of the last 10 days mark a critical turning point in the occupation of Iraq.

The administration is putting out a convenient and self-serving narrative to explain recent events in Iraq. According to the official story, a few barbaric "isolated extremists" from the "Saddamist stronghold" of Fallujah killed four contractors who were guarding food convoys in an act of unprovoked lawlessness. Moreover, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is fighting the U.S. forces right now because, in the words of George Bush, he has decided that "rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force."

The truth is rather different on both counts.

To begin with, Fallujah, although heavily Sunni-dominated, is hardly the bastion of Saddam sympathizers. During his regime, its imams got into trouble for refusing to obey his orders to praise him personally during prayers. Furthermore, many of its inhabitants are Salafists (Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism), a group singled out for political persecution by Saddam.

In fact, during the war, Fallujah was not a hotbed of resistance. The origins of its hostility to coalition forces dates back to Apr. 28, 2003, when U.S. troops opened fire on a group of up to 200 peaceful protesters, killing 15. The soldiers claimed that they were merely returning gunfire, but Human Rights Watch investigated and found that the bullet holes examined at the location were inconsistent with that story -- moreover, Iraqi witnesses at the scene maintained that the crowd was unarmed. Two days later, another three protesters were killed.

A string of such incidents over the following months caused many people in the area to join the resistance, forming their own groups. Sporadic violence, combined with the Pentagon's policy of responing with blanket punitive measures quickly left the town seething with anger against the occupation -- more so than other places in Iraq.

The most recent incident, in which four contractors working for Blackwater Security were killed, did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, just the week before the horrific event, U.S. Marines had mounted heavy raids on Fallujah, killing at least seven civilians, including a cameraman. Residents cite these raids as the reason for the attack on the Blackwater people and the gruesome spectacle that followed.

Given the recent fighting in Fallujah, which killed 12 Marines, two other soldiers, and at least 66 Iraqis, there is no prospect of getting off this track of senseless violence in the foreseeable future.

Rather than deal with this growing threat of violent resistance in the so- called Sunni Triangle, the CPA has instead chosen to pick a fight with the Shi'a followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Whatever al-Sadr's views about democracy may be, Bush's claim that he started this violence to derail the path to a free and democratic Iraq is ridiculous. To begin with, for all of al-Sadr's firebrand rhetoric, he and his followers had until now stopped short of overt violence against the occupying forces.

Moreover, the incident that precipitated this round of violence was the CPA's decision to ban his newspaper, al-Hawza, which in itself was a blatantly undemocratic act. The paper was not shut down for directly advocating violence, but for reporting one eyewitness claim that a supposed car bombing that killed numerous volunteers for the New Iraqi defense forces was actually done by plane (and therefore by the United States). In other words, it claimed that a terrorist incident was in fact carried out by the coalition forces.

In general, there is no quicker way to get an Iraqi to laugh than to talk about how the United States is bringing freedom or democracy to the country. When talking about any problem created by the occupation, Iraqis will derisively say, "This is the freedom."

As the occupation simultaneously loses control in Iraq, from Basra and Najaf to Baghdad, the U.S. has switched explanations as to why they plan to arrest al-Sadr. Now they claim that he is wanted in connection with the murder of Shi'a cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April. And, indeed, one of the other precipitating factors in the recent violence was the arrest of Mustafa Yacoubi, a top Sadr aide, for the same killing. They even say his impending arrest has nothing to do with his anti-occupation activities or even a concern of the coalition authorities -- rather, an Iraqi judge, acting independently, issued the warrant.

This explanation isn't getting very far with anyone here. It has already been revealed that the warrants were written long ago and have been sitting unused until this time. According to an al-Sadr spokesman, the Iraqi Minister of Justice has publicly stated that he has no information tying Sadr or Yacoubi to al-Khoei's murder and that they are not wanted by the Iraqi government.

Their guilt is, for the most part, beside the point. The signs seem to indicate that the move against al-Sadr's people was deliberately timed. If so, it was presumably an attempt to squeeze him out of the political sphere before the token "transfer of sovereignty" on Jun. 30. The strategy has backfired, as is apparent in the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad Tuesday. Although al-Sadr supporters are probably a majority in Thawra and a very sizeable minority in Shuala, the cleric's influence was until now negligible in Kadhimiyah.

But most importantly, the current violence may be dominating the headlines but it's not the real story about what is happening on the ground. The bloody violence of the last ten days is a tragedy, but so is everyday life under the occupation. And it is this daily experience of repression that is fueling the rage, not any misguided loyalty to Saddam. The people in the Shi'a slums of Baghdad who are now furiously resisting the Americans hate Saddam with a passion to this day.

Iraqis suffered tyranny and neglect and expected great improvements when the United States took over. Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated in the 1991 uprising and now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in Shuala, told me, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time -- maybe worse."

That is all you need to know about the occupation of Iraq.

Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog Empire Notes and is currently writing and blogging from Baghdad. His latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

Behind the Madrid Massacre

Whether Thursday's attacks in Spain, in which 190 people were killed and nearly 1500 wounded, were carried out by the Basque separatist ETA or by al-Qaeda, they make one thing very clear: Terrorism cannot be fought by military means.

After the first Gulf War, and particularly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, U.S. military analysts concerned themselves extensively with the question of terrorism. An early conclusion was that it is precisely the extreme dominance of the U.S. military that makes potential opponents turn to what is sometimes called "asymmetric warfare" -- i.e., attacks in which the other side also has a chance of inflicting damage. For example, Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued in 1998, says, "America's unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies (whether nations or terrorist groups) that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault."

The Bush administration's response, involving a tremendous new wave of militarism, new weapons systems, and a newly aggressive posture in the world could not have done more to exacerbate the threat of terrorist attacks if it had been planned that way.

Worse, there has been a shift in the modality of attacks after 9/11. The 9/11 attacks and previous ones by al-Qaeda, like that on the U.S.S. Cole or those on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, were attacks on hard targets, requiring suicide bombers and, in the case of 9/11, a highly sophisticated operation. Furthermore, the targets were ones of obvious political significance; there was hardly a more potent symbol of American economic might and world domination than the World Trade Center. Contrary to popular depictions, at the time al-Qaeda was not simply ravening to kill any American anywhere.

That changed after the Afghanistan war, with a decision made by elders of Al-Qaeda in Thailand in January 2002 to turn more toward soft targets. The first major such attack was the November 2002 Bali nightclub bombing which killed nearly 200. Just as with the Madrid bombing, the targets had no particular political significance. While it is true that Aznar supported the war on Iraq, 90% of the Spanish people opposed it, and they were the victims of the attack.

And thus we are led to the reductio ad absurdum -- more military prowess leads to more terrorist attacks, more defense of hard or politically significant targets leads to more indiscriminate attacks on soft targets, and it is simply impossible to defend all soft targets. Today the trains of Madrid. Tomorrow the New York subway?

The progression of events in Iraq under the occupation mirrors this.

Initially, one saw mainly attacks on the U.S. military. It quickly responded by increasing the level of alert, and so August of last year saw numerous terrorist attacks. The U.N. humanitarian headquarters was attacked and Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim was assassinated at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. These were still aimed at very specific persons or organizations and involved targets with some level of protection.

As Iraq began to fill up with concrete barricades and razor wire, the targets changed. Attackers who had earlier concentrated on the Iraqi police as collaborators with the occupation took to bombing lines of people waiting to interview for jobs as police. Cleaning women who worked on a CPA base were gunned down. Attacks against random targets of opportunity proliferated. The culmination was on Ashura, the holiest day of the year for the Shi'a; a dozen suicide bombers attacked processions in Baghdad and Kerbala (and tried to in Basra and Najaf), killing likely over 200 people.

The Spanish Popular Party -- which lost the election to the Socialist Party on Sunday -- had a heavy political investment in the claim that the ETA perpetrated these attacks. Evidence seems to point in the other direction now, with the discovery of a video tape claiming that al-Qaeda was responsible, and a denunciation of the attacks by the spokesman of Batasuna, the Basque party most closely associated with the ETA.

But it doesn't matter. If al-Qaeda didn't do this, whoever did it was inspired by al-Qaeda. The attack involves the same modus operandi, the same abandonment of clear political purpose for body count as the sole criterion. If non-Islamist organizations come to adopt the same methods, the danger is only increased.

So far, all military measures in the "war on terrorism" have strengthened the emerging archipelago of Islamist terrorist organizations. Weakening it requires taking away the political ground on which they stand. That ground is not the virtually nihilistic domestic political programs of these groups. It is their opposition to U.S. imperial control of the Islamic world, a grievance that most Muslims share.

It doesn't matter whether you're a dove or a hawk, left or right, concerned with the suffering of others or concerned merely with your own skin. Military means will not work. The beginning of a solution is the end of the twin occupations in the Middle East. Only after that will it be possible to take measures against terrorism that don't worsen the problem.

Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of EmpireNotes and serves on the Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice. He is the author of "The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism" and "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

Gunpoint Democracy in Iraq

The United States is now a formal colonial power in Iraq, and the combination of the Administration's deceptions and the mounting American casualties have dimmed the shine on the colonialists' boots. In March and April, public support for the war was in the neighborhood of 75 percent; by the end of July, it had fallen below 60 percent.

It might have fallen further but for the notion -- peddled by Bush, as well as by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times -- that the reason for the war didn't matter because the United States liberated the Iraqi people and is now building democracy in Iraq.

It is certainly true that the Iraqis are free from the extreme authoritarian brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime; unfortunately, it doesn't exactly follow that the Administration intends to create democracy in Iraq. An Administration that will play fast and loose with the truth on Iraq's putative weapons of mass destruction is entirely capable of doing the same regarding its true intentions for the future Iraqi government.

The question of what sort of society the United States is building in Iraq takes on tremendous significance, since Iraq may be just one of many. "We're going to get better over time," Lawrence Di Rita, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told the Los Angeles Times. "We'll get better as we do it more often."

To get a hint of what the Bush Administration has in mind, it's instructive to take a quick look at its previous effort in democracy building: Afghanistan. Since routing the Taliban, Washington has been propping up some of the most undemocratic forces in Afghanistan, including the various regional warlords, like Ismail Khan of Herat and Abdul Rashid Dostum of Mazar-i-Sharif. A study by the Center for Economic and Social Rights found that one of the most common complaints from ordinary Afghans was about U.S. support for the warlords. Many Afghans, the report noted, "named U.S. policy as the prime obstacle to disarming warlords."

A recent report from Human Rights Watch charges that U.S. support for these warlords could jeopardize attempts to adopt a new constitution and to hold elections in 2004. "Gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the United States and its coalition partners" have "essentially hijacked the country outside of Kabul," says Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

To convey the appearance of democracy, the United States called together a loya jirga, or grand council. Washington essentially deputized the warlords to manipulate it in order to attain U.S. aims. "We delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process," wrote loya jirga delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi in The New York Times. "A small group of Northern Alliance chieftains decided everything behind closed doors." Early on, more than 800 of the 1,500 delegates had called for the election of Zahir Shah as interim president, but he was unsuitable to U.S. interests. "The entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government," the delegates wrote.

After Zahir Shah stepped down, the delegates were presented with a fait accompli. Hamid Karzai, handpicked by the United States, was the only viable candidate (there were two "protest" candidates who were largely unknown). There was no meaningful decision for them to make. In the end, the whole thing was scarcely more democratic than the loya jirga conducted by the Soviet Union in 1987 in order to legitimize its client government.

In Afghanistan, the United States had no particular desire to run the country. Its primary objective, a permanent or semi-permanent military presence throughout Central Asia, was easily achieved. The creation of a pro-American central government helped give a veneer of international legitimacy to its continuing military operations there. But, aside from some economically minor plans for oil and gas pipelines, there are no compelling interests for the United States in Afghanistan -- at least none so compelling that it wishes to risk a significant commitment.

Iraq is a different matter, for several reasons. Its oil reserves, second in the world behind Saudi Arabia, will be increasingly important to the world market. According to the Cheney energy plan, by 2020 Middle East oil may have to supply up to two-thirds of world demand. With virtually no spare production capacity in the Middle East outside Saudi Arabia, this indicates that Iraq's production must be not only restored to prewar levels but dramatically increased. Even before the war, the State Department had convened the Oil and Energy Working Group of the Future of Iraq project. It was peopled with the appropriate Iraqi exile figures, like Fadhil Chalabi (Ahmad Chalabi's cousin), who called early on for "privatization or partial privatization" of Iraq's state-owned oil companies.

Later, The Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of a USAID document entitled "Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Sustainable Growth" that called for "private sector involvement in strategic sectors, including privatization, asset sales, concessions, leases, and management contracts, especially in the oil and supporting industries." Not only will the Iraqi economy be sold off to foreigners, but, according to the Journal, private American contractors will actually play a leading role in the process of selling it off. In June, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the nice term for the occupying forces, issued a call to privatize not only the oil companies but a total of forty state-owned companies.

The Bush Administration has actually gone far beyond the basic goals of controlling the military and taking over the oil industry to implement full-scale "economic shock therapy." As in the case of Russia, it is likely to be all shock and very little therapy. Already, the holiday on import tariffs (except for basic items like those that go into the food ration) has meant that Iraqi industry, crippled by twelve years of sanctions, is forced to compete on equal terms with the entire world market. Outside of the oil sector, massive deindustrialization is a likely result. And those companies that can compete will likely be sold off to foreigners.

Iraq is also the ideal staging area for military "force projection" in the rest of the Middle East. In fact, within weeks of the fall of Saddam's statue, The New York Times reported tentative plans for the establishment of four permanent military bases in Iraq. And the Los Angeles Times quoted unnamed government sources talking about U.S. plans to use the "unspoken but obvious leverage of its new regional dominance." The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, speculated that regime change in Syria and Iran might not require direct military intervention but could be achieved by diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and "psychological pressure" with the U.S. military next door.

In essence, the United States went into Iraq with clear, if unstated, goals: controlling Iraq's oil, privatizing the economy, establishing a permanent military presence, and dominating Iraq's foreign and defense policies. The Bush Administration set the policies of the Iraqi government first and then went about creating a government that would implement them. It hoped such a government could quickly control Iraq internally, at which point all would hail the triumph of democracy.

But creating such a government is a tortuous process, largely because Iraq came along with the baggage of numerous political groupings, not all of them independent (many of the standard "Iraqi opposition" groups, for example, were taking CIA money after passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act), but many of them too independent for U.S. wishes. At every stage, Washington artfully combined the threat of exclusion from the political process with inducements to enter it.

The first round of the "democratization" process began while major combat operations were still proceeding. The U.S. military convened a series of meetings in Nasiriyah, where carefully selected Iraqi political figures were supposed to start the ball rolling on creating an interim government. There was no meaningful international participation -- not even a fig leaf, as there was with the Bonn conference for Afghanistan.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main "Iraqi opposition" groups, initially boycotted the meetings, calling for immediate withdrawal of the troops. According to The Washington Post, the Americans deliberately excluded the Iraqi Communist Party. Across the political spectrum, from Adnan Pachachi, former foreign minister of the pre-Ba'ath 1968 Iraqi government, to the Communist Party, there were calls for the United Nations to sponsor the conference instead of the United States, because many participants felt that U.S. control of the process deprived it of legitimacy.

Popular opinion echoed that feeling. In April, there were mass protests in Baghdad, Mosul, and across the country, including 20,000 in Nasiriyah at the site of the talks, saying, "No to Saddam, No to America, Yes to Islam, Yes to Democracy."

In May, Bremer briefly postponed talks on creating an interim government. Then he announced that instead of allowing Iraqis to form the government, Bremer himself would appoint a political council of twenty-five to thirty Iraqis, who would then oversee further steps toward creating a government. He also stressed that this council would be strictly advisory and that he would veto decisions that "are fundamentally against coalition interests" or against the "better interests of Iraq." John Sawers, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's special envoy for Iraq, justified the plan on the basis that Iraq's political culture was "too weak" for democracy. Shortly thereafter, Bremer cancelled all local elections.

Major Iraqi political groups denounced Bremer's plans, and many signed a letter of protest against them. Amir al-Basri, the spokesman for the Islamist al-Dawa Party, said they "create the impression that the Americans are not very serious about getting out of [an] interim period and arriving at an Iraqi sovereign government."

And yet, when the council came together on July 13, all the major parties had signed on to it. Bremer formed the twenty-five-member council with careful attention to ethnic and religious balance: It has thirteen Shia Arabs, five Kurds, one Turkoman, and one Assyrian. Three members are women. Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's favorite for future leader of Iraq, is a member, as is Adnan Pachachi, who has emerged as the State Department's favorite. The council also has a member from the Iraqi Communist Party, a member from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and a member from al-Dawa.

But the council's first action gave a taste of the degree of political servility it is likely to show. It not only declared April 9, the day of the fall of Baghdad, a new national holiday, but it canceled the holiday of July 14, the anniversary of the anti-monarchist, anti-colonialist uprising in 1958 that ushered in the most progressive government that Iraq ever had. There is a widespread understanding that it has a limited mandate, and that, in particular, the big three of military policy, foreign affairs, and oil are essentially out of its hands. Bremer did throw participants a bone: The council is not explicitly an advisory one, and members have rejected the idea that Bremer has a veto over decisions. In practice, however, it seems clear that participants know how far they can go and what lines not to cross.

Manipulation of the press has followed the same general trajectory. There is more openness in the Iraqi media than in the past thirty-five years, but Washington controls the spectrum of discussion. In May, Major General David Petraeus, the military governor of northern Iraq, seized control of Mosul's only TV station because of its "predominantly nonfactual/unbalanced news coverage." While admitting this was a blatant act of censorship, he justified it because of the need to keep from "inflaming passions." Washington has also prevented the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Media Network -- one of many new "democratic infrastructure" projects -- from airing programs that are critical of U.S. policies.

In early June, Bremer issued an order against "inimical media activity." He listed nine different possible reasons for shutting down a media outlet. For example, putting out news that is "patently false and calculated to promote opposition" to the occupation authority is verboten. Promoting "civil disorder, riot, or damage to property" is also a no-no. Punishment for such an offense can include a prison term of one year.

So far, Bremer has shut down two newspapers and one radio outlet. Reporters Without Borders has called for immediate action to replace "restrictive media regulations" in Iraq.

Democracy was never Bush's goal in Iraq. The goal was establishing U.S. dominance, not only militarily but also economically. The council Bremer has set up is designed to ratify that dominance, not usher in genuine democracy.

Many Iraqis understand this. Their recognition of Bush's cynical motives -- along with the brutality and ineptness of the occupation -- is spurring the protests in the streets and helping recruit the guerrilla army that even the U.S. military now recognizes it faces.

Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective. His latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

Gulf War Lite

In the run-up to the Gulf War, government officials put forth a bewildering array of reasons for the war, culminating with Secretary of State Baker's fatuous claim that "it's about jobs."

In this impending war, perhaps the earliest and most consistently telegraphed since Cato the Elder's repeated calls for the destruction of Carthage, a similar confusion reigns. The same reflexively secretive administration that didn't want to disclose which companies it met with and for how long when formulating its energy policy has released at least four different plans for achieving "regime change" -- widely-announced "covert" operations; the "Afghan strategy"; "Gulf War lite" and the "Baghdad/inside out option." It has also released numerous reports of generals, military strategists and other insiders who oppose the war, to the point that the American public seriously wonders what's going on.

This confusion has reached such heights that many are beginning to call this a "Wag the Dog" war, an attempt to avoid a Republican disaster in the November elections. While the exact timing may be affected by domestic considerations, the claim that they are the reason for the war itself is implausible when you consider that there has been talk about war on Iraq ever since 9/11, at a time when the world was Bush's oyster. In fact, the war is simply a continuation of the "regime change" policy of over 10 years' standing -- except that in the post-9/11 world the government believes that it can get away with anything by invoking terrorism as a threat.

So what is really going on?

Let's start with what are not the reasons for the war. None of those put forth by the Bush administration holds water.

Shortly after 9/11, there was an attempt to relate Iraq to the attacks. The original claim that Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague earlier in the year, quickly fell apart, as Czech officials engaged in an array of recantations and re-recantations. There are also allegations, recently resurrected, that Iraq had a terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, where Islamic fundamentalists were trained in how to hijack planes. It's hard to argue against any of this simply because there's so little there there; in fact, for months the administration stopped claiming any connection, unthinkable had there been any concrete evidence. The best current argument for this connection is Donald Rumsfeld's dictum that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

The main reason given for the war, of course, is the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Scott Ritter, formerly one of the most hawkish of the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, has stated repeatedly that Iraq is "qualitatively disarmed." Although there's no way to account for every nut and bolt and gallon of biological growth medium in the country, Iraq had (as of December 1998) no functional capacity to develop biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. The common counter-argument is that Iraq could acquire them and the longer we wait the greater the chances of that happening.

Given the widespread credulous acceptance of this argument, it's worth nothing that even the extremely one-sided pro-war panel on the first day of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearings on Iraq was unable to produce any reason why Saddam would jeopardize his position by plotting an attack that would surely invite massive retribution. In fact, although he has used weapons of mass destruction before, most notably against the Kurds (at which time he was aided and abetted by the United States), the most plausible scenario in which he would use them again is under threat of American attack.

Beyond that, successive U.S. administrations have done all they could to sabotage arms control in Iraq and worldwide.

First, in December 1998, President Clinton pulled out the weapons inspectors preparatory to the "Desert Fox" bombing campaign -- even though he knew this meant the end of weapons inspections. This is normally reported in the press as the "expulsion" of the weapons inspectors.

Next, in a move that stunned and angered the international community, George W. Bush killed the proposed enforcement and verification mechanism for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention -- in December 2001, after the threat of bioweapons attacks was particularly clear.

Passed in 1972, the convention has over 100 signatories, including Iraq and the United States. Because of the lack of an enforcement mechanism, countries were free to violate it, as did Iraq and the United States -- both have attempted to weaponize anthrax, for example, as we found out when U.S.-developed anthrax killed six Americans in the fall of 2001.

In 1995, those signatories started negotiations to provide enforcement through mutual, intrusive inspections. For six years, the U.S. government threw up constant roadblocks, finally terminating negotiations. The reason? Biological weapons inspections in the United States might imperil the profits of biotech companies. Of course, had the enforcement mechanism passed, it could have been used to press for inspections in Iraq.

Even worse, in March 2002, the United States removed Jose Bustani, head of the Organization to Prevent Chemical Weapons, from office. According to George Monbiot of the Guardian, it was because Bustani's efforts to include Iraq in the Chemical Weapons Convention (subjecting it to chemical weapons inspections) would deprive the United States of a casus belli.

There is consensus by arms control experts that weapons inspections in Iraq were extraordinarily effective in finding and dismantling weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, the administration isn't really concerned about this threat.

Constant protestations in the Senate hearings and elsewhere to the contrary, the administration is also not concerned about democracy in Iraq.

Consider the U.S. reaction to the Iraqi intifada, the mass uprising of Iraqis after the Gulf War, in response to a call by George Bush, Sr., to the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. In February and March of 1991, at the peak of that rebellion, Saddam's regime was seriously imperiled.

In order to save Saddam's regime, the U.S. military deliberately lifted the existing no-fly zone, allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships against the rebels; it seized arms depots so the rebels couldn't arm themselves; and it even allowed the Republican Guards safe passage through its ranks to put down the uprising.

At the time, Richard Haas of the State Department explained, "What we want is Saddam's regime without Saddam." In 1996, on ABC, Brent Scowcroft explained further that the United States did not want a popular democratic movement that overthrew Saddam -- it wanted a palace coup.

When all the official justifications collapse, what is left is the same ugly three-letter word that has always been at the core of U.S. Middle East policy -- oil. It's important to clarify, however, that U.S. policy is neither simply about access to oil, which is how mainstream commentators frame it, nor is it completely dictated by oil companies, as some on the left claim.

Access to oil can be obtained by paying for it, as other countries do. The United States has a different attitude because it is an empire, not merely a nation. On any given day, U.S. troops are in 140 countries around the world, with permanent bases in more than half of those. After two decades of structural adjustment and one of "free trade," the United States has more control over the internal policies of other countries than the elected governments of those countries. Although "globalization" was recently the more visible face of this imperial expansion, it always had a military underpinning -- and currently the military aspect is dominant.

This empire is predicated, like past empires, on political control for the purpose of economic control and resource and surplus extraction. Oil is the world's most important resource, and control of the flow and pricing of oil is a potent source of political power, as well as a significant source of profits. Oil companies, arms companies and general corporate America are all intimately concerned with U.S. Middle East policy.

Iraq nationalized its oil in 1972, taking complete control over its own selling and pricing of oil and over the use of oil revenues. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait put an end to that.

The sanctions imposed after that and maintained to this day have had many effects. In addition to causing the deaths of over 500,000 children under the age of 5 (according to a UNICEF study), sanctions have partially broken Iraqi control of Iraq's oil. Starting with a complete ban on oil sales, they were gradually modified so that now there are no restrictions on sales. Iraq cannot make its own decisions about oil exploration and investment, nor until recently about repair of existing oil production facilities. Most important, all revenues from oil sales are deposited in a bank account in New York administered by the Security Council. Money is disbursed from that account, only with the permission of the U.S., and almost exclusively to foreign corporations.

The sanctions have turned the Iraqi regime permanently against the United States. If sanctions were lifted, the government would make oil exploration deals with French and Russian companies, not American ones. Continuation of the sanctions is a constant political burden for the United States. The Bush administration wants a war to extricate itself from this stalemate, by replacing Saddam with a U.S.-friendly dictator who will make deals with American companies and follow American dictates.

The Afghanistan war was the opening move in a potentially far-reaching gambit. It was not particularly about fighting terrorism -- it was planned before 9/11, and even U.S. government officials have concluded (in a June 16 New York Times article) that it may have made "rooting out" al-Qaeda more, not less, difficult, because of the geographic dispersion caused by the war. It was also not just about a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan, although those plans seem to be going forward. It also got the U.S. military into all seven "stans," including potentially oil-and-gas-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

If Bush gets his Iraq war, given Russia's rapprochement with NATO, there will also be a complete military encirclement of Iran, the other part of the "axis of evil" (North Korea was thrown in for ballast). At that point, Iran will find it increasingly difficult not to accede to U.S. wishes.

ExxonMobil, Shell and other companies are currently negotiating with Saudi Arabia to do natural gas exploration. Although the Saudis say they will never allow foreign corporations to get their hands on crude oil, this is an important beginning.

According to "The New Oil War," an article in the March/April 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, OPEC countries have not increased their pumping capacity in over 20 years. This is the natural consequence, though the article doesn't say it, of the dual U.S. policy of propping up corrupt feudal elites that use the revenues from oil sales to invest in U.S. and European corporations instead of investing them in their own economies and of "containment" (i.e., targeting for destruction) of those few countries, like Iraq and Iran, that do try to develop their internal economies. Over the next 20 years, world requirements for Middle East oil are expected to double.

The United States seeks nothing less than the establishment of complete control over all significant sources of oil, especially of the Middle East, which holds roughly two thirds of the world's proven reserves. The twin requirements of U.S. imperial control and the constant feeding of an industrial system based on ever-increasing levels of fossil fuel consumption dovetail with the systematic attempts of the U.S. to keep Middle Eastern countries from developing independent economies to set the stage for large-scale re-colonization, through war, "covert" action and economic coercion.

This war is not about minor domestic squabbles between Democrats and Republicans, but about a very ugly New World Order, in which innocents in the Middle East, Central Asia and in the United States pay for the imperial dreams of an increasingly detached American elite.

Rahul Mahajan is the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas and the author of "The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism" (Monthly Review Press). He is currently writing a book on Iraq titled "Axis of Lies: Myths and Reality about the U.S. War on Iraq." His work is available at rahulmahajan.com. He can be reached at rahul@tao.ca.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.