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November 30, 2004

Dead Wrong on the Iraqi Elections


by Juan Cole

At least 12 persons died violently in the guerrilla war on Saturday in Iraq. There was a major battle over control of police stations in Khalis, and Marines found more bodies in Mosul. The U.S. military said that guerrillas had launched a major campaign of intimidation aimed at frightening Sunni Arabs into boycotting the forthcoming elections.

Seventeen parties, mostly small Sunni Arab groupings along with the two major Kurdish parties, made a plea Saturday that elections be postponed. Some major Sunni Arab groups, such as the Association of Muslim Scholars, had already called for a Sunni Arab boycott.

Al-Jazeera interviewed Sunni cleric Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi on Saturday. He said that the Allawi government had not been elected and that Sunnis would not participate in illegitimate elections. The al-Jazeera anchor, a canny woman, asked al-Kubaisi how a legitimate government could be established without elections. Al-Kubaisi angrily retorted that there can be no legitimate elections under the shadow of foreign occupation. (This exchange belies the reputation in the U.S. of al-Jazeera as the Fox News of the Arab world. Would a Fox anchor have been that aggressive with, say, Jerry Falwell?)

Anyway, the plea for a postponement was roundly rejected on Saturday by all the most important actors. George W. Bush, U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad John Negroponte, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Election Commissioner Abdul Hussein Hendawi, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his three colleagues in Najaf, and 43 major political parties, all voiced a resounding "No!" The first three would probably have been enough.

Even Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, who was meeting with Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jaafari, came out for holding the elections "as soon as possible." Jaafari is leader of the Shi'ite Dawa Party, the most popular in Iraq. Khatami portrayed the issue as one of restoring security, suggesting that an elected government would have a better chance of calming the country. He said Iran had more of a stake in a stable Iraq than anyone else.

Khatami would probably have been better advised to keep his mouth shut. The struggle over postponing elections has already taken on a strong tinge of Sunni-Shi'ite struggle, especially since the Kurdish parties appear to have given at least lukewarm support to the plea of the Sunni Arabs for a delay (most Kurds are Sunnis; some Kurdish officials hedged their bets). Most of the major Iraqi players insisting on the election being held on time are Shi'ites, whether Arabs or Turkmen. To have Iraq's Shi'ite neighbor also press for elections to be held makes it look as though the Shi'ites are ganging up on the Sunnis. That perception contributes to the guerrilla war in the first place.

Charles Krauthammer, after 18 months of blithe optimism on Iraq, has now suddenly decided that the country is embroiled in a civil war and that the forthcoming elections will resemble those of 1864 in the United States, when the Confederate states did not vote for Lincoln.

As usual, Krauthammer is wrong. Historical analogies are always tricky, but this one is simply inaccurate. The problem is that Iraqis are not electing a president, even a war president. They are in effect electing a constitutional assembly. The main business of the new parliament is to craft a permanent constitution.

So, the analogy would be to 1789. What would the new American Republic's chances have been if the Southern states had not been able to send delegates to the constitutional convention, and so had been excluded from having an input into it? All sorts of compromises had to be hammered out in 1789, concerning Southern slavery and how to count a slave for census purposes, etc. If the South hadn't been able to show up, the Northern states would simply have ignored those issues, and the secession of those states might have come 70 years early. Would the North have been able to resist it so successfully at that point?

Likewise, Sunni Arabs have a big stake in the permanent constitution. Will it give Kirkuk and its oil to the Kurds, depriving Arabs of any share in those revenues? Will it ensconce Shi'ite law as the law of the land? Will it keep a unicameral parliament, in which Shi'ites would have a permanent majority, or will it create an upper chamber where Sunnis might be better represented, on the model of the U.S. Senate? If all those issues go against the Sunnis because they aren't there to argue their positions, it would set Iraq up for guerrilla war into the foreseeable future.

And that is why Khatami's hopes that an elected government will be more stable are unrealistic. It isn't that the government is elected that lends stability, but rather widespread acceptance of the government's legitimacy. The Sunnis are unlikely to grant that if they end up being woefully underrepresented. And then you will just have to reconquer Fallujah again next year. How long before you are just conquering rubble and snipers?

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat conducted a random poll of 100 Iraqis on Saturday, in person or by telephone, and found that about 60% wanted the elections to go forward, 35% wanted a postponement, and 6% refused to answer. It is not clear if "random" means "scientifically weighted." If they just contacted 100 random persons, their poll probably isn't worth much. If they tried to vary locale, social class, ethnicity, and sex according to proportion in the population, then it would be more telling. They don't say if the respondents were from different cities, or all in Baghdad.

Quentin Langley is wrong for much the same reasons that Krauthammer is. He gives 10 reasons why he thinks the Iraq elections will be a "success." Most of his points are made in apparent ignorance of the most basic facts about contemporary Iraq.

Langley's 10 reasons and my response:

"10. Despite the overwhelming media focus on trouble spots, these are all in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where just 20 percent of the population live."

This allegation is simply incorrect. First of all, there is no "Sunni triangle." The Sunni Arab heartland is more like a rectangle, and it is vast, encompassing much of the capital, Baghdad. Even if it were the only problem, it wouldn't be a small one. In fact, "trouble spots," if by that is meant things like car bombings, grenade and mortar attacks on coalition troops and Iraqi national guards, and machine gun fire, are all over the country. Tal Afar, Kirkuk, Hilla, Amarah, Majar al-Kabir, Samawah, Sadr City, etc., etc., routinely see "trouble spots." While most of the guerrillas are Sunni Arabs, they have demonstrated an ability to strike all over the country. And some of the problems come from other groups, whether Shi'ite Turkmen in the north or disgruntled Shi'ite Mahdi Army militiamen in the south.

If hundreds of people show up to a school to vote in Hilla and suddenly take mortar fire, with dozens killed, then will that really have no effect on turnout? What if such incidents occur all over the country? Maybe voters will be brave and refuse to be dissuaded from voting. Maybe they won't. To pretend the problem does not exist or is limited to only a small part of the country, however, is to live in a fantasy land.

"9. There are as many people in the Kurdish regions in the north, as there are in the Sunni Triangle. The Kurdish regions have had successful multi-party democracies for 12 years."

This datum does not guarantee a successful outcome to the elections. The two major Kurdish parties have now developed cold feet about them because of fear of Shi'ite dominance. Moreover, the maximalist demands of the Kurds for a consolidated Kurdish superprovince, for Kirkuk, for petroleum revenues to remain local, for permanent exclusion of federal troops from their soil, are more likely to cause trouble themselves than to offset the troublesome Sunni Arabs.

"8. The majority Shias (60 percent of the population) are keen to participate. Spiritual leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, have urged people to vote and even calling it a religious duty. Under this doctrine, people who don't vote can go to hell."

This point is true, but does not guarantee successful elections. In fact, if Shi'ite turnout is very big and Sunni Arab turnout low, it will create a tyranny of the Shi'ite majority, a special problem when parliament turns to constitution-making.

"7. The electoral system chosen (national lists) is not particularly vulnerable to intimidation. Votes are counted locally but the totals are calculated nationally, and seats in parliament are awarded in proportion to votes. A gang that intimidates voters locally will have almost no impact on the national vote."

What an absurd thing to say. By the author's own admission, intimidation is likely to be greater in the Sunni Arab heartland than in the Shi'ite south or Kurdish north. Therefore, the differential rate of intimidation could keep Sunni Arabs away from the polls in greater numbers than the other major ethnic groups, producing that tyranny of the Shi'ite majority of which I warned.

"6. A boycott by Sunnis would be counterproductive. In the U.S., representation is allocated to each state according to population. Under national lists, the weight of any region or strand of opinion is determined by turnout. If Sunnis stay at home, Sunni candidates don't get elected."

In history, peoples have done many things that are counterproductive. The Shi'ites of Bahrain boycotted the first free elections in that country recently, allowing Sunni fundamentalists to dominate parliament in a country with a national Shi'ite majority. This point assumes that the author's idea of what is rational is shared by the people he is analyzing, the classic "mirror" problem.

"5. The coalition has trained a new Iraqi army, which is taking on more and more of the security role."

Among the more ridiculous claims this author has made. The "new Iraqi army" was largely useless in Fallujah, except for a handful of the braver Kurds and Shi'ites.

"4. The turnout is going to be huge. Liberal journalists will report on the day that turnout is disappointing, because they will only be counting in Baghdad. When votes come in from Kurdish and Shia areas it will prove to be even bigger than the American turnout, which itself was up by a fifth from 2000."

Big Kurdish and Shi'ite turnouts and a low Sunni Arab turnout would not in fact be good news.

"3. People in Iraq are fed up with war."

The tens of thousands of Iraqis determinedly fighting a guerrilla war are not fed up with war. They are prosecuting it.

"2. More and more people in Iraq have access to the Internet and other free information sources. They no longer have to trust government propaganda. Al-Jazeera, and a growing network of Iraqi bloggers most of whom regard Americans as allies give Iraqis access to freedom of speech."

These same media are being used by the guerrillas and by the boycotting parties. Many Sunni Arabs would not know that the Association of Muslim Scholars had called for a boycott if it were not for al-Jazeera's interviews with its leaders.

"But the biggest reason the Iraqi elections will be a success is ...

"1. Western liberals who claim that Arabs don't want or aren't ready for democracy are just wrong. What liberals call 'Western' values are human values. Arabs want to be free and to govern themselves just as much as people in Europe and America do."

"Western liberals" for the most part haven't said any such thing. It was the British and American Right that overthrew the last freely elected, democratic government of Iran in 1953. The French encouraged the Algerian military to cancel the election results in 1991. Democracy in the Middle East has often been sought by its peoples, and has had no bigger enemy than the right-wing parties of Europe and the United States.

A statement such as "Arabs want to be free" is anyway mere propaganda. Which Arabs? When? Under what circumstances? The millions of Shi'ites who support Moqtada al-Sadr don't appear to me to want to be free of puritanical restrictions or of charismatic authoritarianism. The millions of Sunni Arabs who are supporting the guerrilla war, actively or passively, don't seem to want the kind of "freedom" Langley is imposing on them. A majority of Iraqis clearly want a new, parliamentary government to succeed, but significant minorities and maybe even a plurality do not. Glib statements by Westerners about what "Arabs" want are the New Orientalism, since the Western observers put themselves in the position of ventriloquists for their pliant Arab lap puppets. We don't get to hear some of the real Arabs, like Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, in American media. Langley gets to substitute himself for them.

The success or failure of the political process in Iraq anyway has nothing to do with yearning for democracy. It has to do with the frankly stupid policies implemented by the Bush administration in Iraq. If the whole enterprise goes bad, it won't be because the Iraqis couldn't live up to Mr. Langley's ideals. It will be because the Americans, especially the neoconservatives, crafted a ridiculous electoral system based on that of Israel.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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