Last December, Mark
Danner took a piercing look back at our Presidential election in Florida,
"How Bush Really Won," printed up in the New York Review of Books and
posted on line at Tomdispatch.
In the aftermath of another election, closely linked to our own and to the well
being of our President, Danner returns to the (post-)campaign trail this
time in Baghdad. What follows, I feel certain, is the single clearest-eyed,
best-reported piece to date on Iraq's January election, whose end game is only
now being played out in the installation of an ethnically and religiously-divided,
exceedingly weak Iraqi government. It will "rule" a riven, occupied country
facing an explosive and resilient insurgency as well as
independently controlled Shi'ite and Kurdish militias, and it will do so
from inside Baghdad's Green Zone; in other words, from within what is essentially
a vast American military encampment.
I've seen no other piece that gives a more powerful sense of America's Baghdad
as it exists today, of what exactly the election meant, of the degree to which
it was fought out in the media as much before an American as an Iraqi audience,
and of why the lack of Sunni voter turnout is sure to prove such a disabling
factor in Iraq's future. As of this week, after two months of behind-the-scenes
brokering, there will officially be an
elected government in Iraq, but, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland,
California, there may, in fact, be no there, there.
By the way, Mark Danner's new book, Torture
and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, is a chilling
document that does much to explain the nature of the fix the Bush administration
now finds itself in; but whatever you do, don't miss his election essay which
is being distributed on-line by Tomdispatch thanks to the kindness of the editors
of the New York Review of Books.
It appears in the April 28th issue of that magazine. ~ Tom
Iraq: The Real Election
by Mark Danner
"The essence of any insurgency, and its most decisive
battle space, is the psychological. [It's] armed theater: you have protagonists
on the stage but they're sending messages to wider audiences. Insurgency is
about perceptions, beliefs, expectations, legitimacy, and will. Insurgency is
not won by killing insurgents, not won by seizing territory; it's won by altering
the psychological factors that are most relevant."1
Just past dawn on January 30, Iraq's Election Day the fourth of the
US occupation's "turning points," after the fall of Baghdad, the capture of
Saddam Hussein, and the "handover of sovereignty" I stood at the muddy
gates of Muthana Air Base outside Baghdad watching the sun rise, pink and full,
into a white-streaked sky; then, feeling a sudden tremor beneath my feet, I
started abruptly: the explosion was loud and, judging by the vibrations, not
I turned to the US Army captain who had been waiting with me next to Muthana's
inner watchtower, and saw his lazy smile. He had been watching me.
"No, sir," Captain Vic Schairstein said. "That would be an IED" an
improvised explosive device. "That's the low pitch. We've taken so many mortar
rounds by now you can tell by the pitch whether they're 60s, 82s, whatever.
It's like an outfielder judging a pop fly by the sound of the bat."
My face, puffy from a sleepless night spent on a makeshift canvas cot tracking
incessant small-arms fire and intermittent explosions, must have betrayed concern,
for here the captain's smile broadened. "Don't worry, sir, it's early," he said.
"They haven't had time to go to the mosque to get all jihaded up yet." Then,
as my ride appeared two armored BMWs rumbling slowly up the muddy track
toward blast walls and barbed wire and the captain helped me gather up
my flak jacket and my helmet, he offered a final word for the day ahead. "Those
VBIEDs" vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, military-speak for
car bombs "have you ever noticed how they all tend to be white? I guess
that's for purity. Anyway, you might keep that in mind."
The sun was turning orange now, the sky pale gray, and the gathering light
on Baghdad's streets revealed no cars, pure white or otherwise. Driving slowly
through the monumental avenues and great squares we saw... nothing: no cars,
no people, no dogs. Nothing moved. It was as if every living thing had been
felled by a sudden and lethal plague.
Until we noticed, wrapped about a distant bridge, a glittering necklace of
barbed wire; within it a clutter of tan American armor and, among the humvees
and blast barriers and tank traps, a sudden burst of movement. What was happening?
We slowed and squinted, and in a moment realized with a start that we were happening:
the soldiers had seen us four or five assault rifles were leveled at
us and the big gun of one of the humvees was swinging to. Arms flailed in the
air; mouths opened and closed; they were shouting, though we could hear no words.
A soldier sprinting forward, rifle pointed at us in his right hand, held up
a clear signal with his left: we were not to move.
Three or four minutes passed; we were scrutinized through binoculars, telescopic
sights. We kept our eyes forward and our hands visible and waited. Up ahead
now, at the bridge checkpoint, I saw the soldier motion with his rifle: come
forward but slowly, slowly. We crept forward and then about two hundred
yards from the checkpoint we were halted once more and with his rifle the soldier
motioned the driver from the car.
Our Iraqi driver, who worked for The New York Times, glanced back at
me. He was to have collected me at Muthana the night before but, in the gathering
darkness and the imminent curfew, American soldiers had stopped him. "When I
started to get out of the car they fired over my head," he told me. "The soldier
ordered me to kneel on the ground and then to walk to him on my knees with my
hands on my head. Then he rested his gun barrel here" he touched his
temple "and said, 'They're going to search the car. If anything
happens, the first thing I do is shoot you.'"
Slowly, carefully, our driver opened the door and stepped out; hands on head,
he advanced slowly toward the bridge, a sleepwalker in the suddenly bright morning.
Several guns were trained on him but most remained fixed on us. No one spoke.
When he reached the soldiers he was roughly seized, his shirt pulled up, torso
searched, credentials checked; then a full body search. Finally, guns raised,
they motioned us out. Arms up, we inched forward; at last we in turn were seized,
frisked, credentials checked; led finally into a small barbed-wire enclosure:
wait here. The driver was sent back to the car, ordered to bring the vehicle
forward but slowly, slowly. We stood watching as the soldiers encircled
the car, opened the hood, trunk, passed a mirror under the chassis, began dismantling
the panels in the trunk...
Onto the dusty tan city that was Baghdad, dotted with Saddam's grandiloquent
Babylonian modernism the minatory office towers, the ceremonial gates
and looming monuments had been superimposed, in the two years of occupation,
an entirely new architecture, a harsh gray city of a distinctive high-brutalist
style. Oceans of concrete had flowed into Baghdad, miles of barbed wire had
been unwound around and through it, mountains of sand had been poured over it,
and everywhere these most basic of elements had been gathered and shaped into
the distinctive forms I saw before me. Lining the bridge, Berliners: twelve-
or fifteen-foot-high blast barriers of rough concrete named for the Berlin Wall
that now marched by the hundreds and thousands along Baghdad's main streets
and avenues, masking vast parts of the city from public view.
Blocking the bridge and surrounding the American armor were Jersey barriers:
concrete half-walls that, arranged in the form of "chicanes," or tight S-curve-shaped
obstacles, force vehicles to slow and stop. Tank traps: massive iron bars welded
together in crisscross forms so that they resemble the jacks a giant child might
play with, typically draped, as here, in flamboyant swirls of barbed wire. Hesco
barriers: huge square canvas bags reinforced with steel and filled with dirt
or cinderblocks, the giant's version of a sandbag, stacked in their scores and
hundreds. Sandbagged bunkers. Steel watchtowers. Iron blast doors. X-ray machines.
Magnetometers. Sniffer dogs. And the ubiquitous squads of men, some uniformed
but more often not, armed with 9 mms and AK-47s and the clear willingness to
fire first and ask questions afterward.
A year before the concrete elements of this new architecture had encircled
the ministries, the public buildings, the military bases, and of course the
hotels. Now, under the pressure of hundreds of suicide bombings and kidnappings,
they had metastasized, acquiring extra layers and additional cordons, and moved
in force into residential neighborhoods, surrounding the homes of government
workers and politicians and businessmen and finally doctors and lawyers and
anyone of any means or power, anyone who might conceivably, for reasons political
or financial, be targeted for assassination or kidnapping.
So pervasively had this new rough concrete and steel world imposed itself
that one evening in the well-to-do district of Mansour, my driver, bewildered
by the proliferating roadblocks and checkpoints and chicanes, found himself
unable to find a way out of a neighborhood he had known well for decades but
that had now become something alien and unfamiliar, a kind of gray mirror-maze
of security. In barely two years the capital on which Saddam had lavished such
money and attention had been entirely recast, by architects at least as megalomaniacal:
the insurgents and their suicide bombers, and the security experts, military
and civilian, who took on the task of thwarting them. Together the bombers and
their adversaries had built this city, one bomb at a time hundreds of
bombs since the occupation began, killing at least two thousand people. And
on Election Day it remained a work in progress.2
The half-dozen checkpoints at which we were stopped, the barbed-wire pen in
which I now stood all of this was the insurgents' doing; for they had
let it be known, in the couple of weeks before Election Day, that "150 car bombs
and 250 suicide attackers are prepared to strike in coming days." Asked at a
"Green Zone" news conference about these reports, which CNN had attributed to
"intelligence sources" cited by "a top Iraqi police official,"3
the interior minister of the interim government remarked that "the insurgents
were trying to increase talks and rumors on the streets." Indeed, and they had
succeeded; now the Americans were responding.
Fifteen months before, on the second day of what came to be known as the Ramadan
Offensive, when insurgents in the space of forty-five minutes struck Red Cross
headquarters and several police stations with suicide car bombs, I had an appointment
with a top American intelligence officer. When I finally arrived at the meeting,
a bit late and somewhat disheveled I had happened to be near the Red
Cross when the car bomber struck4 I remarked
that such attacks were probably impossible to prevent. You're quite wrong in
that, the officer had responded sharply:
We could stop these things entirely if we were willing to do what was necessary.
We could stop car bombers if we stopped all driving. But that would be inconsistent
with another, overriding imperative letting Iraqis live a reasonably
normal life. That would prevent the return to normalcy that we need to have.
Politically at least, we can't take those steps. Which means that in the end
these things are not a military problem, they are a political
problem. We could stop them but to do it, we would have to shut the place
On Election Day, the political imperatives were different. In the months before,
the Americans had increased the number of US troops in the country by 20,000
and had mounted a series of aggressive offensive operations against the insurgency
that had reduced Fallujah to near rubble, had sent insurgents in other cities
of the Sunni heartland underground, and had filled to capacity Abu Ghraib and
the other military prisons in the country with suspected AIFs (or "anti-Iraqi
forces," as the Americans called the insurgents).5
At the checkpoint, as US Army helicopters passed low overhead, the soldiers
finished searching the car and brought us out from behind the barbed wire, searched
us again more thoroughly, then let us put our bags back in the car and allowed
us to depart. I asked the military's translator his face covered by a
brown knit ski mask, to prevent insurgents retaliating against him or his family
whether he would vote that day; he said nothing. "Speaking for this sector,
sir," his sergeant put in quickly, "the polling sites are real secure. The question
is whether people will come out of their houses and vote. If they want to, it's
real secure." He gestured all around him. "No way a car bomb gets through this."
On Election Day, there would be no "vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices"
for there would be no vehicles. On Election Day the American military in Iraq
had shut the place down.6
And so, on Election Day, we walked. We had stopped at the bureau after the
long drive across Baghdad watched a leader of the Independent Electoral
Commission of Iraq tell the Green Zone television cameras, "We plead with Iraqi
citizens to take the risk, if they still consider it a risk, to perform their
duty..." and then, with the car useless, we set out on foot. We came
out slowly, hesitantly into the mid-morning, a couple of security people walking
ahead, passed through a checkpoint or two, then advanced down the middle of
the nearly deserted main avenue. It was odd, after the armored cars and flak
jackets and helmets, to be walking on the street: I felt unnaturally light,
but also vulnerable, as if I had escaped from captivity and soon would be recaptured.
The shift in point of view from behind the walls of the barricaded hotel
or the armored car to the strangely deserted streets was jarring.
Three weeks after Election Day, in a newspaper report of a series of attacks
on February 19, an image caught my eye:
In a fifth suicide attack, a suicide bomber rode a bicycle into a tent full
of mourners at a funeral in southwest Baghdad, killing at least three people
and wounding 55. Afterward, from a high building nearby, it could be seen
that parts of human bodies below had been gathered together in piles.7
What struck me about this was not the macabre innovation (the use of a bicycle
on the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura, when cars would be suspect); nor the peculiar
dimness of the bomber, who, unlike his four somewhat abler colleagues, managed
to strike the wrong target. ("He was an idiot," a housewife wounded in the attack
told a reporter. "It was a Sunni funeral, not a Shi'ite one.") It was rather
the point of view, which offers the reader a picture of the aftermath "from
a high building nearby" from which one can discern "parts of human bodies below...gathered
together in piles." The image is striking, grotesque; but the point of view
is lofty, aerial distant.
Increasingly during the past year the newspaper reader and especially the
television viewer has been looking at the great complicated tableau of occupied
Iraq through a highly constricted lens, as if trying to examine an enormous
history painting by squinting through a straw. For more than a year insurgents
have targeted foreigners for assassination and especially for kidnapping
at last count, 189 "foreign nationals" had been kidnapped in Iraq, and thirty-three
of them had been killed.8 What began as acts of
political terror, complete with televised pleas on the part of the victim and
in a few cases televised beheadings, quickly devolved into a cash business,
in which criminal gangs, spotting a foreigner, seize him or her as a "target
of opportunity" and market their prize to insurgent groups, who televise pictures
of their acquisition and can earn, when they like, a substantial amount of cash
in exchange for release. ("You must realize," a Jordanian security expert told
me in Amman, "that as a foreigner the moment you enter Iraq now, you are transformed
from human being into commodity a commodity worth half a million to a
As suicide bombers and kidnappers created the new concrete city, they have
driven reporters off the streets, away from the restaurants and shops, away
from "ordinary Iraqis," forcing them to sheath themselves in flak jackets and
helmets, move in armored cars, and finally take refuge behind blast walls and
barbed wire and armed guards in fortress-like hotels. Television reporters,
politically the most important journalists on the ground for they supply
information, and above all images, to by far the largest number of people
are in practical terms the most vulnerable; their large "footprint" the
cameras and other equipment they carry, the crews they bring to carry it
makes them most conspicuous, and thus most restricted.
The correspondent you watch signing off his nightly report from the war zone
with his name, network, and dateline "Baghdad" is usually speaking from the
grounds or the roof of a fully guarded, barricaded hotel a virtual high-rise
bunker and may not have ventured out of that hotel all day, having spent
his time telephoning, reading the wires, and scrutinizing footage from Iraqi
"stringers" who have been out on the street. When he does leave the hotel it
will be in an armored car, surrounded by armed security guards, and very likely
the destination will be a news conference or briefing or arranged interview
in the vast American-ruled bunker known as "the Green Zone." Sorties beyond
Baghdad, or even to "hot" neighborhoods within the capital, can usually be undertaken
only by "embedding" with American troops. It is a bizarre, dispiriting way to
work, this practice of "hotel journalism,"9 producing
not only a highly constrained picture of the country and its politics but, on
the part of the journalist, constant fear, anxiety, and ultimately intense frustration.
"I am getting out of here, getting out soon," one network correspondent told
me. When I asked why for American foreign correspondents Iraq is, after
all, the most important story going he shrugged: "It's no longer honest
All of this made Election Day, thanks to the massive security presence on
the street, a day of liberation for the foreign press. Journalists were set
free. We walked, and looked, flinching now and again at the sound of mortars;
and pretty soon by now it was mid-morning we began to see people,
first one or two here and there, and eventually a group of three blue-shirted
policemen walking abreast, all holding up purple fingers. They were jolly, laughing,
giddy in the near-deserted street. Above the din of a couple of Apache helicopters
passing overhead, they gladly told us their votes: one for Iyad Allawi, the
present interim prime minister (whose face could be seen staring out from posters
on many of the walls and concrete barriers around us, vowing "Strong Leadership,
A Safe Country"); one for a list sympathetic to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shi'ite
rebel (who, officially, was boycotting the vote), and one for List 169, the
great Shi'ite coalition gathered together under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah
Ali al-Sistani (whose face, though he supposedly favored no particular list,
was similarly ubiquitous on the 169 posters).
A few hundred yards down the street we came upon a barrier manned by a handful
of Iraqi policemen and plainclothes security men. A cop wearing a ski mask gave
me my seventh or eighth body search of the day, checked our credentials, wrote
something down, took our cell phones, and finally, after some low-voiced discussion
among the police, waved us by the concrete barrier. We walked down a short path,
turned into a small courtyard, and were startled to see revealed...The Spectacle.
Filling the few hundred or so square yards of the courtyard of this small
neighborhood school were perhaps a couple of hundred Iraqis old men in
threadbare suits, women in traditional abeyas, young men in tracksuits and sweatshirts
gathered together in five or six lines, talking in low voices, flinching
at the occasional explosion, looking about somewhat self-consciously, but all
waiting patiently to vote. I hesitated a moment. After all the Election Day
images of mass carnage that had filled our heads during the last week, conveyed
in rumors and threats and grim questions at news conferences, this gathering
of people the sheer public vulnerability of them seemed
shocking. We plunged in among them.
Vox populi, or, in journalese, vox pops: man-on-the-street interviews:
in today's Iraq, a rare, almost unheard-of pleasure. Such journalistic toe-dippings
are generally attempts, among other things, to find "the great quote"
the person who manages to articulate, in his or her own way, the broader narrative,
the plotline already determined. Such exercises are thus simultaneously a matter
of evidence gathering and of analytic confirmation. On this day we wanted answers
to questions which had to do, at bottom, with why these Iraqis had risked their
lives to come out to vote: our questions, that is, fit in with the central narrative
about the war, and especially about why America had fought it, what had brought
America to Iraq in the first place. Before us, after months of explosions and
suicide bombings and dead soldiers and civilians, stood people who might seem
the perfect symbols of liberation, who embodied the war's purpose in a single
image: Iraqis waiting to express their voices in an exercise of democratic will.
We needed now the image to speak.
For the most part, though, they didn't seem to want to cooperate. Why are
you here, I asked a young man wearing a Ray's Pool Hall shirt. "Why?" He looked
surprised. "To vote." But why, why did you come? "We are a normal people, an
independent people. We want to be like other people, to vote. We need security,
stability that's all." He volunteered nothing about Saddam, about the
war, the Americans, the occupation; when asked he seemed reluctant, like many
of his neighbors in line, to discuss them.
A young woman, wearing a beautiful sea-green abeya, asked by a colleague about
Saddam, grew annoyed. "No, this is not about Saddam. Forget Saddam. I am an
engineer and I have no job. Neither does my husband." Then, a bit exasperated,
"We want a normal country."
I looked behind her: on the low roof of the school building, a policeman stood
watching with his AK-47. We asked an old man, wearing a checked kaffiyeh and
a white beard, what he expected from the elections. He too seemed reluctant.
"I already talked to the press," he grumbled. But what did he hope to accomplish
by voting? He thought a moment. "Now we'll have good officials. Now we'll talk
to them and they'll talk to us. Before they just hit you, beat you, punished
you." He was eighty-three, had lived, he said, under eight governments. "The
monarchy was the best. There was stability then."
Among these mostly middle-class people I heard this thought expressed again
and again: the desperate need for security, for stability for normalcy.
Several, when I asked why they had come out to vote, looked at me with varying
degrees of surprise or condescension and said, "So we will have a government.
Look around, we need a government." Some, when I asked whom they'd voted for,
refused, smiling: this is democracy secret ballot.
Others, when asked several times, offered the names of candidates but
only the famous ones, those leaders of the main lists, for of course the "security
situation" the bombing, the kidnappings, the beheadings had prevented
any public campaign; there had been no rallies, no door-to-door canvassing for
votes, no chance even to learn who was running; indeed, many of the candidate
lists were, in effect, secret. Only the names of the party leaders were widely
known, Iyad Allawi, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Ibrahim Jaafari, and a few others,
all of them among the exiles returning from London and Washington and Tehran,
who had dominated the American-appointed governing bodies since the fall of
It seemed like a country fair, this gathering, a kind of journalistic grand
buffet: the beautiful women in their traditional dress, young men in T-shirts
and sweatpants, old men in their kaffiyehs. We met engineers and builders and
schoolteachers, an elegant former government minister, and "one of the last
eight Jews in Baghdad." (This last man, who would give his name only as Samir,
told me he could be certain of his exalted status because "I know all the other
ones.") After the "hotel journalism" and all the fear, it was a delight to move
among this crowd. And yet, as a political matter, these people did not offer
the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building
already under construction that day. What would be the verbal equivalent for
the images that already were dominating the world's television screens: the
lines of people, the purple fingers, the explosions in the background which
made the voters flinch but not waver? We needed someone to say: Thank heaven
Saddam has gone, thank heaven the Americans came, thank you for giving us democracy.
And no one at least here in this voting place in Baghdad seemed
to want to say it.
My favorite voter that morning was the former minister, Dr. Ahmed Dujaily
an elegant eighty-year-old engineer wearing a traditional sidari on his
head and a beautifully tailored blue pin-striped suit who had served
as minister of agricultural reform in 1966 and 1967 ("the last brief time of
good government") and offered, after we complimented him on his suit ("Ah yes"
smiling, gazing down at himself "I wear this for weddings, parties...
elections also"), in an English bespeaking a fine English education, what I
took to be the most enlightening dialogue of the day:
So, we began, for whom had he voted?
"In fact, I voted for List 169..." the so-called Sistani List.
That is the Shi'ite List? You are Shi'ite?
"Yes, I am Shi'ite but I am Iraqi before anything. Religion is for myself.
This election is for Iraq."
And why are you voting?
"I feel I must give service to my country and I voted for these people, Abd
al-Hakim and Jaafari, because I trust them...."
And how do you feel about Saddam? a colleague put in.
"Well...of course, I am happy the Saddam regime is abolished. He is not human,
he is an animal...."
Who abolished it?
"Who? Why, he did."
Well (trying another tack, and gesturing upward, at the buzzing Blackhawks),
those helicopters, who are they?
"They are the Americans."
Yes, and are they good or bad?
"Good or bad?" A puzzled pause. "Not good or bad. They are the Americans."
No, no, what I wanted to ask...
He knew, of course, what we wanted to ask. He smiled and tried to be helpful.
"Listen, we thank Americans for destroying the regime of Saddam but they did
many things that were not required of the country. They made many, many mistakes
here. I know what the Americans want." He smiled; he was matter-of-fact. "They
want military bases. They want to dominate the new regime. They want the oil."
"Saddam was a criminal, a lot of people were killed. Now these others"
he gestured in the vague direction of the most recent explosion; he meant the
insurgents "they are bombing one place, another place. This doesn't help,
this does nothing for the country." Then, a bit of history from the 1920s
but clearly relevant to him today: "When the British kicked out the Turks, the
Shi'ite, you know, fought the British also. But the Sunnis stuck with the British,
and the British took those who stuck with them and formed a government."
Now, clearly, it was the Sunnis who were fighting, and the Shi'ites who were
"sticking with" the occupying power, this time the Americans. "But the elections
should be carried forward, whether the Americans like the results or not," he
said. "This is determined by the people. We want an independent country." As
for the Americans, "when they came people were happy but they made many, many
mistakes in the occupation. After all these mistakes, now they will not leave.
They will have their military headquarters established in Iraq and when they
leave I do not know. The bases, the oil... And of course" he gestured
at the voters, grinned, and, with a philosophical roll of his eyes, said
"they are using Iraq for propaganda for their own elections: 'Democracy and
It was after one when we returned to the bureau to find the television pictures
scores of Iraqis in line, waving their purple fingers, smiling in incomparably
powerful images of democracy already making their way over the airwaves
to greet the early risers in London, New York, and Washington. The voices over
the images were enthusiastic, almost breathless, informing the viewer that officially
72 percent of Iraqis had turned out at the polls, a dramatic but mysterious
number that within the hour would be transformed into "probably more than 80
percent" mysterious because, as I realized after a moment, there was
simply no way, physically, to have arrived at such a figure.
Television correspondents in Baquba and at other locations in the ravaged
"Sunni Triangle" were reporting, with great excitement, heavy turnouts
"The Sunnis are voting, the Sunnis are voting" another piece of news
which seemed unlikely and turned out, sadly, to be as much wishful thinking
as the turnout figures themselves. The numbers were withdrawn that evening
the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq confessing that
the 72 and 80 percent figures, repeated by on-air correspondents all day and
run continuously as a crawl on CNN and other networks, had in fact been based
on "estimated voter flow to the polls." But by that time they had done their
work; the numbers, the breathless reports, all were needed to match the pictures
that alone would determine that day's story.
A voice from the Muthana Air Base a few hours before floated into my mind.
It belonged to Captain Aaron Kalloch, an operations officer, who at the end
of a long interview, with both of us growing tired, had spoken about a suicide
car bomb attack the week before, a high-profile attempt on the headquarters
and, presumably, on the life of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "Boom! Remember
that, the other day, that IED attack in Kindi Traffic Circle." He leaned forward
and nearly shouted, as he gave his mocking version of the television broadcaster:
"Boom!! Headlines on CNN: Chaos in Baghdad! Prime minister nearly assassinated!
He leaned back in his chair. "Well, was it? Was it 'chaos in Baghdad'? I mean,
let's take a look at that attack for a moment. What happened? The guy didn't
get close to Allawi's headquarters. Allawi wasn't even there. The guy slightly
wounded two people. And the guy killed...himself! I mean, he killed
himself! That was it! And that was the lead story of the day on CNN.
"I ask you, should it have been?" He paused and glared at me, then answered
his own question. "Nothing happened! Allawi was perfectly safe. The guy
killed himself.... Nothing happened except that they scored an
IO victory, and that stuff really pisses me off!" IO was military for "information
operation" an event intended to turn the vital political war at the heart
of any insurgency in one's favor.
"The simple fact is that how things are perceived here is almost as important
as how things actually are. And here IO is everything. Insurgency is relatively
easy for the enemy because he's got his own personal international IO platform...."
He paused, waited.
And what is that?
"The US media!" he said. He paused again. "The fact is, whoever wins the IO
battle here, wins. And this thing tomorrow, this is the event. If Iraqis
come out to the polls, if people vote... I mean, there will be violence but
the question is how effective that violence will be. If the AIF" anti-Iraqi
forces "come after this and they will, they have to and
people do vote, then that is it. They are done, it's over. They may last one
or two more years but they've lost. And they know it. And that's the IO. Whoever
wins the IO battle here, wins."
At the polling place I had admired the voters and their strangely complicated
response to what it was they were doing. But I realized that "the IO" was not
there but here before me now, on the television set, with the lines of voters
and their smiles and purple fingers and the heavy breathing about "more than
80 percent" turnout. This was the IO. There was indeed violence, as Captain
Kalloch had said that day would see in fact nine suicide bombings and
perhaps fifty dead and its 260 insurgent attacks were the highest number of
any single day of the occupation.10 But that violence
would not interfere with the IO, for that was established by the images early
that day, and the violence, however pervasive, would not get on television.
And it would not get on television in part because Iraq was effectively locked
down the absence of vehicles meant explosions were limited to the
size of a bomb that could be carried by a man on foot and the mobility
of journalists was severely restricted (we could only see as many polling places
as we could reach on foot, in my case two) and in part because of well-thought-out
"IO rules" the most effective one being, in retrospect, that cameras,
still and video, were admitted only into five predetermined and highly protected
I visited one of these in the afternoon, in the heavily Shi'ite commercial
neighborhood of Karrada, and found there a level of security far above that
of the little school: one had to pass through cordons of US military, Iraqi
military, Iraqi police, and finally Electoral Commission security. Four layers
of security; each checked credentials and identification and the first three
performed searches. There would be no suicide bombing before the television
During the more than two years since the Iraq war began Americans have seen
on their television screens its four major turning points: the fall of Baghdad,
the capture of Saddam Hussein, the "transfer of authority" to the interim Allawi
government, and now the Iraq elections. Each has been highly successful as an
example of the management of images the toppling of Saddam's statue,
the intrusive examination of the unkempt former dictator's mouth and beard,
the handing of documents of sovereignty from coalition leader L. Paul Bremer
to Iraqi leader Iyad Allawi, the voters happily waving their purple fingers
and each image has powerfully affirmed the broader story of what American
leaders promised citizens the Iraq war would be. They promised a war of liberation
to unseat a brutal dictator, rid him of his weapons of mass destruction, and
free his imprisoned people, who would respond with gratitude and friendship,
allowing American troops to return very quickly home.
With the exception of the failure to find WMDs, the images have fit so cleanly
into the original narrative of the war that they could almost have been designed
at the time the war was being planned. And because these images fit so closely
with the story of what Americans were told the war would be, they have welcomed
each of them with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, after the images faded, the events
on the ground that followed refused to fit that original narrative. In this
the January 30 election has been no exception.
As I write, two months have passed since Iraqis went to the polls and voted
58 percent of those who were registered, according to official figures,
though likely fewer than half of those eligible.11
No government has taken office, the national assembly elected in January still
hasn't chosen a prime minister, and the interim administration of Iyad Allawi
has long since entered a state of drift, with ministries frozen in place, unable
to issue orders or carry out policies. And, as General John Abizaid, the commander
of US forces in the Middle East, told CNN on March 27, "the longer we have a
delay in the formation of an Iraqi government, the more uncertainty there will
be. The more uncertainty, the greater chance for escalated violence." Though
as an information operation, the elections had been an enormous success
particularly in the United States, where the images reinvigorated the conviction,
at least for a time, that the war made sense as a political fact in Iraq
the results of the election were much more mixed.
"The real problem is the story here can't be shown in images," said my friend,
the television correspondent who, disgusted with "hotel journalism," left Baghdad
before the election. "You can't show the fear here with a television picture.
You can't show the atmosphere of paranoia. The story escapes the images
the tools that we have to tell it." On Election Day, for example, the
images could show clearly the beautiful, intricate ballot, with its hundred
and ten-odd parties and coalitions but not the fact that there were really
only three choices, each with enormous sources of money: the Kurdish list, with
its funding from the Kurdish autonomous government, in the north; the Shi'ite
list, with its image of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and its funding from the mosques
in the south and the Iranians across the border; and the Allawi list, with its
control of the interim government and its access to that government's money
and television. On Election Day, Kurds voted for the Kurdish list, Shi'ites
voted for the Shi'ite list, a relative handful, about 12 percent, voted for
the Allawi list and the Sunnis made their presence known by not voting
at all. The election, in effect, was an ethnic census.
In the ideal vision of a post-Saddam Iraq, the people would have come out
to bless the new political dispensation, in which the Shi'ites assume their
rightful place as the majority party and the Kurds and especially the Sunnis,
the erstwhile elite who throughout its modern history had ruled Iraq, take their
place as proud, active, and politically vital minorities. This is not what happened
on January 30. Shi'ites won a majority, but not enough under the peculiar rules
imposed by the occupation to form a government. Kurds, turning out in enormous
numbers for their single list, were overrepresented in the new assembly and
gained, in effect, a veto over who would form the new government. And finally,
little more than one in ten Iraqis came out and voted for Allawi, dashing American
hopes that he could remain in power.
Television cameras, which could only show what was before them in the polling
places, could not show the day's critical actors, the Sunnis, who did not appear.
The real story on Election Day was that the Sunnis didn't vote. If the election
was to mark the point from which Iraqis would settle their differences through
politics and not through violence, it failed; for those responsible for the
insurgency not only those planting suicide bombs but those running the
organizations responsible for them and the leaders of the community that has
shown itself sympathetic enough to the insurgents' cause to shelter them
did not take part. The political burden of the elections was to bring those
who felt frightened or alienated by the new dispensation into the political
process, so they could express their opposition through politics and not through
violence; the task, that is, was to attract Sunnis to the polls and thereby
to isolate the extremists. And in this, partly because of an electoral system
that the Sunnis felt, with some reason, was unfairly stacked against them, the
The images could not show, finally, the peculiar system of government under
which those elected are now struggling to function a system in effect
imposed by the American occupation in the interim constitution, known as the
"transitional administrative law." That system demands, among other things,
that the national assembly bring together two thirds of its votes to confirm
a government, a requirement found in no other parliamentary system in the world.
That requirement is an artifact of the larger conundrum of Iraqi politics: it
was demanded by America's critical Iraqi ally, the Kurds, who are deeply ambivalent
about their connection to and role in an Iraqi state dominated by Shi'ites,
and it was supported by the Americans. In effect the two-thirds requirement,
and the political impasse it has fostered, is a legacy of the Americans' reluctance
to confront the logical implication of their war to unseat Saddam Hussein and
his Sunni elite: that there will come to power in Iraq a government dominated
by the Shi'ite, powerfully influenced by Islamic law and favorably inclined
toward the United States' foremost enemy in the region, the Islamic Republic
As I will write in a further article, these facts are vital to comprehending
the dramatic difference between the encouraging images we are shown and the
stubborn and bloody reality on the ground.
See Steven Metz, "Relearning
Counterinsurgency," a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute,
January 10, 2005. I have slightly edited the language from the rough transcript.
Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam
Iraq, Brookings Institution, March 25, 2005 (updated). The index
gives a total of 220 "mass casualty bombings" of which 136 "reported so
far were suicide bombings." The death toll from these "mass casualty bombings,"
including suicide bombings, Brookings estimates at 2,290, with 5,059 wounded.
These numbers are certainly on the low side, though estimates vary a good
See "Sources Say Hundreds of Iraq Attacks Planned," CNN, January 20, 2005.
See my "Delusions
in Baghdad," The New York Review, December 12, 2003.
See Edward Wong, "American Jails in Iraq Bursting with Detainees," The
New York Times, March 4, 2005.
"Never have elections been held under such difficult conditions, with a
level of violence so high that the country had to be locked down for several
days in order for the vote to be held." See Marina Ottaway, "Iraq:
Without Consensus, Democracy Is Not the Answer," Policy Brief, Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, March 2005.
See Dexter Filkins, "On Bus, Bicycle and Foot, Suicide Bombers Aim at
a Shi'ite Holy Day," The New York Times, February 20, 2005.
See Iraq Index, p. 12. The real wave of kidnappings of foreign
nationals began in April 2004, when forty-three were seized.
See especially Robert Fisk, "Curbs Leaving Big Holes in Reporting about
Iraq," The Independent, January 17, 2005.
See John F. Burns, "US Shouldn't Cut Force Soon, Iraqi Leaders Say," The
New York Times, February 2, 2005.
The percentage, much reduced from election-day estimates of 72 to 80 percent,
remains "soft," for it is unclear precisely how many Iraqis are registered
to vote, and what percentage the Iraqis who are registered represents of
those eligible. In any event it seems likely that fewer than half of those
Iraqis eligible to vote did so. See Greg Mitchell, "Update: Officials Back
Away from Early Estimates of Iraqi Vote Turnout," The Washington Post,
February 1, 2005.
This article appears in The New York Review of Books, April 28,
Mark Danner, a longtime New Yorker Staff writer, is Professor
of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and Henry R. Luce
Professor at Bard College. His most recent book is Torture
and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, which collects
his pieces on torture and Iraq in these pages. His work can be found at markdanner.com.
Copyright © 2005 Mark Danner