Dilip Hiro on Iraq’s Electoral Cul-de-sac

Posted on

[Note: A number of readers wrote in to complain that the link at the Shameless Plug Department (at the bottom right of the main screen of Tomdispatch) that would allow you to read the first pages of my novel, The Last Days of Publishing, was inoperative. It is now fixed.]

In the United States, the long-awaited January 30 Iraqi election, assessed below by Dilip Hiro, might be labeled the “until” election or, more recently, the “in-the-days-before” election. Since “sovereignty” was turned over to the Interim Iraqi Government last June (a previous “until” event), American officials have been predicting — and American press and TV reports generally seconding — that “violence” in Iraq would increase “until” the January 30th date (with the implication, of course, that after hitting a peak it would certainly diminish thereafter). As we’ve gotten ever closer to that day, there have been ever more frantic predictions of intensification “in the days before” the election — and the first hints that in the days after, no matter how many Iraqis do or don’t turn out to vote under terrible circumstances — the violence will not exactly go away.

It’s a no-brainer, of course, that various of the insurgent factions in Iraq want to disrupt the elections; but to focus on the election itself, as on the sovereignty moment before it, is to miss the larger strategic goal that the rebels generally seem to be pursuing, and will surely continue pursuing no less intensely on January 31 or February 31 or March 31 (as we head for the next “until” event, perhaps the writing of the new Iraqi constitution). In the fashion of guerrilla wars, after all, the insurgents are primarily trying to isolate the American occupiers of the country. They are doing so quite literally by cutting roads and supply lines and ambushing supply convoys. (Remember that the full might of the U.S. military has yet to secure even the crucial stretch of road that runs from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone in the heart of the capital.) They are also, however, attempting to cut as many ties as possible, as violently as they can, between the Americans and any Iraqis willing (as policemen, contractors, judges, politicians, translators, cleaning ladies on American bases, or National Guardsmen) to cooperate with, or in any way support, or simply to earn a few dollars from the country’s invaders in a land with a jobless rate above 50%. This is a truly brutal campaign — assassinations, beheadings, kidnappings, murders of every sort, car bombings, and mortarings — and, elections or no, it’s on the rise.

In parts of Iraq, just about everything, it seems, is contributing to the rise of, and success of, the insurgency. Oil exports are down from prewar levels. Electricity is in many places next to nonexistent for large parts of the day. (“We don’t want elections, we want electricity!” was a slogan recently noted down by Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid at a demonstration by followers of the rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr outside Baghdad’s Oil Ministry.) Gas and kerosene are in desperately short supply. (Shadid, for instance, mentions passing a five-mile-long gas line on his way to the demonstration.) The now notorious Abu Ghraib and other American prisons and detention areas are once again filling up; while — talk about role-modeling — systematic acts of torture and abuse have now spread from the Americans to Iraqi police and intelligence forces, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. (For all the arguments in and around Washington in favor of keeping torture in the American arsenal, practically speaking in a situation like Iraq, acts of torture and humiliation do nothing other than create yet more enemies and fuel an ever stronger insurgency.)

Oh yes, and, as a headline from a piece by Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay (who have been doing fine reporting over the last year from Iraq and Washington) puts it: “Iraqi insurgency growing larger, more effective.” They write, in part:

“The United States is steadily losing ground to the Iraqi insurgency, according to every key military yardstick ‘All the trend lines we can identify are all in the wrong direction,’ said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization. ‘We are not winning, and the security trend lines could almost lead you to believe that we are losing.'”

Panic over ineffective Iraqi forces has led to headlines that come right out of the early years of the Vietnam War — as in the following subhead on the front page of the New York Times, “Plan Calls for Thousands of Additional American Military Advisers” that went with the head, General Seeking Faster Training of Iraq Soldiers — and a plaint that could have come out of almost any year of the Vietnam War: Why do “their” Iraqis fight so much better and more fiercely than “ours”?

Panic over ineffective Iraqi forces has led to headlines that come right out of the early years of the Vietnam War — as in the following subhead on the front page of the New York Times, “Plan Calls for Thousands of Additional American Military Advisers” that went with the head, General Seeking Faster Training of Iraq Soldiers — and a plaint that could have come out of almost any year of the Vietnam War: Why do “their” Iraqis fight so much better and more fiercely than “ours”?

No wonder the Bush administration is reputedly planning to pile a new $80 billion military funding request (mainly for Iraq) on top of the emergency $25 billion already appropriated from Congress for fiscal year 2005. (“At nearly $105 billion, total funding for military operations in 2005 would be more than 13 times larger than Bush’s budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.”) And you can place a good bet on the possibility that this won’t be the last of it for 2005 either.

By the way, according to Reuters, that $80 billion doesn’t even include a possible $1-2 billion for the new “embassy complex” we’re considering building inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. (Talk about settling in for the long haul “until”!) The military is, at present, expressing its assessment of the direction of events in Iraq by planning for the maintenance of at least present troop levels (and so, undoubtedly, endless further extended tours of duty and an ongoing involuntary draft) through the year 2006 or beyond. And according to a recent Reuters report:

“The White House has scrapped its list of Iraq allies known as the 45-member ‘coalition of the willing,’ which Washington used to back its argument that the 2003 invasion was a multilateral action, an official said on Friday. The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House replaced the coalition list with a smaller roster of 28 countries with troops in Iraq sometime after the June transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government.”

A recent New Yorker magazine piece on the military in Iraq commented that our troops there were the most isolated occupation force in history. Nowhere outside their own bases can they even take off their body armor, no less shop in a market or, for that matter, consort à la Vietnam with bar girls. On an even larger scale, it seems that, with great aid and support from Bush administration policies, the Iraqis guerrillas are managing not only to isolate American forces in Iraq, but the United States in the world — and that is a strange, almost unprecedented development.

Before I send you into the Dilip Hiro piece, I thought I might offer this modest bit of uplift: According to a Washington Post report on the annual Alfalfa Dinner, the President said jokingly of Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice: “People often ask me what Condi is like. Well, she is creative; she is tough — think Martha Stewart with access to nuclear codes.” What about behind bars and with access to nuclear codes? Now doesn’t that reassure? Tom

Cul-de-sacs All Around:
Assessing the Iraqi Election
By Dilip Hiro

Iraq’s National Assembly poll on January 30 is already set to become but the latest in a series of “turning points” touted by the Bush administration, which in reality turn out to be cul-de-sacs. Starting with Saddam Hussein’s arrest in December 2003, each of Washington’s rosy scenarios — in which a diminution of violence is predicted and a path to success declared — has turned to dust. These include the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, 2004, the “Iraqification” of the country’s security apparatus (an ongoing theme), and the recapture of Falluja, described as the prime font of the Sunni insurgency, last November.

Instead of dampening resistance to the Anglo-American occupation, the arrest of Saddam, who was at the time still projected by Washington as the primary source of the growing insurgency, exacerbated it. With the prospect of Saddam’s return to power finally dead and gone, Shiites began to focus on the latter part of a popular slogan of the time: “No, no to Saddam; No, no to America.” The result — the Shiite uprisings of April 2004.

The highly publicized rushed note Condoleezza Rice slipped to President Bush at the NATO summit in Istanbul on June 28, 2004 — “Mr President, Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from [Paul] Bremer at 10:26 AM Iraq time” — turned into a sick joke quickly enough when Iyad Allawi, the Interim Prime Minister of “sovereign Iraq,” repeatedly called in American forces to curb the guerrillas. The Pentagon’s routine use of fighter-bombers and attack helicopters to strike against the insurgents in urban areas soon enough defeated its own campaign to win Iraqis’ “hearts and minds.”

Dismal failure also greeted — and continues to greet — Washington’s claims about the successful Iraqification of local security forces. Six months of relentless efforts and constant announcements of further intensification, further speeding up of the process have so far produced only 5,000 trained and dependable Iraqi soldiers for a prospective 120,000-strong army. In the meantime, a third of the 135,000 policemen on the payrolls never even report for duty. Of those who do, only half are properly trained or armed. Time and again, instead of fighting the guerrillas, most police officers either defected or fled.

Following George Bush’s re-election in early November, we were told that the Pentagon’s recapture of Falluja, the epicenter of the insurgency, would finally begin the process of ridding Iraq of the scourge of “terrorists and killers.” Instead, the guerrillas scattered to different places and turned Mosul, six times more populous than Falluja, into their new center of operations.

As we’ve entered 2005, the run-up to the elections has thrown into relief the long-running tensions between the traditional governing Sunni minority and the governed Shiite majority, a relationship that dates back to the absorption of Mesopotamia into the Sunni Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1638.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the 1914-18 World War, the British, detaching the oil-rich Kurdish region (then called Mosul Province) from Ottoman Turkey and attaching it to Mesopotamia to create modern Iraq, added an ethnic factor to the previous sectarian divide. Kurds, belonging to the Indo-European tribal family, are different from Semitic Arabs and they now form about one-sixth of the Iraqi population. Though overwhelmingly Sunni, they do not appear in the Sunni-Shiite equation because their ethnic difference from Arabs overrides their religious fellowship with Sunni Arabs.

The capture of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni and leader of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, finally ended the 365-year-old Sunni hegemony. History shows, however, that no class, sectarian, or ethnic group gives up power without a fight; and having lost power, the former ruling group invariably tries to regain it by hook or crook. In that context, the behavior of the Sunni minority in Iraq should have been predicted.

That the ruling minority was overthrown by the United States, a foreign superpower, totally alien to Iraqis in religion, language, and culture, is what separates the Iraq situation from others. To make matters more complex, this alien invader has its own agenda — essentially, the transformation of Iraq into a client state to further its own military, strategic, diplomatic, and economic interests in the region. That is what grates on the staunch nationalism of Mesopotamians, rooted in 6,000 years of history.

This is true of Shiite as well as Sunni Mesopotamians. “We do not accept the continuation of the American troops in Iraq,” said Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al Hakim, leader of the (Shiite) Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). “We regard these forces to have committed many mistakes in the handling of various issues, the first and foremost being security, which in turn has contributed to the massacres, crimes, and calamities that have taken place in Iraq against the Iraqis.”

His views are echoed across the sectarian divide. Most Sunnis, whether religious or secular, are no less eager than Hakim to see the American troops depart. Polls show that two-thirds of Iraqis want the foreign soldiers to leave immediately.

The members of the two sects differ, however, about the means to be used to achieve this aim. Hakim and other Shiite leaders by and large want to participate in the January 30 poll, win a majority of seats in the National Assembly, and then negotiate with the Americans for a phased withdrawal. Most Sunnis — from secular nationalists to Islamist militants — view elections conducted in a country under occupation by foreign, infidel troops as illegitimate. The call for a poll boycott has come not only from the insurgent groups but also from the Association of Muslim Scholars, which claims the affiliation of 3,000 mosques. The Iraqi Islamic Party, which had been part of the US-sponsored Iraqi Governing Council and the subsequent Interim Government, decided to boycott the poll when its demand for a postponement of the vote was rejected.

To deter violence on the polling day, the Election Commission has so far withheld the names of 5,600 polling centers, and the participating parties have not disclosed full lists of their candidates. While voters may be unaware of the locations of their polling centers, guerilla groups are not. By infiltrating the Election Commission, their agents have already evidently leaked such confidential information to them. One insurgent leader in Baghdad claimed that his resistance cells had stockpiled extra amounts of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and missiles, which they had prepositioned in places where they will be able to hit the polling centers known to them.

“The Americans and Allawi insisted on having these elections to prove they are in control of Iraq,” said an unnamed guerilla leader. “We intend to prove them wrong. The resistance will intensify after the elections and will never cease until the American occupiers leave Iraq.”

So the forthcoming poll will likely provide another example of the cure proving to be worse than the disease.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After (Nation Books) and The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (Carrol & Graf).

Copyright C2005 Dilip Hiro