In the United States, the long-awaited Jan. 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 Jan.
30 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 Jan. 31 or Feb. 28 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 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.
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 Shi'ite 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.)
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"?
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…"!)
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
"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, much 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 Jan. 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, Shi'ites 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 Shi'ite 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
Following George Bush's reelection 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 Shi'ite 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-Shi'ite 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
Ba'ath 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 Shi'ite 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 (Shi'ite) 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
The members of the two sects differ, however, about the means to be used to
achieve this aim. Hakim and other Shi'ite leaders by and large want to participate
in the Jan. 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 U.S.-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 pre-positioned 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
Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (Carrol & Graf).