Monday, February 14, 2005


Peter Brooke - Iraq after the elections

Brooke was the compiler of a large collection of news items relating to Iraq in the three years prior to the invasion. These were posted weekly to the British based Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. They can be found on his website at

Since the Americans have destroyed the Iraqi state, 'Iraq' as such has ceased to have any corporate existence and the society has been reduced to its elements. Which in the case of the Iraqis are quite substantial. They still have the remains of a tribal structure. In Islam, they have a system of law which is not dependent on the existence of a state. Shi'i Islam in particular has a long tradition of organising society independently of, or in opposition to, the state. Assuming that it has been a major player in the resistance, the army seems to have retained a surprising degree of organisational and military coherence.

One wonders what elements we would have to fall back on if a similar destruction was visited on any Western European state ...

Nonetheless, the destruction of the Iraqi state is a catastrophe. A large part of the educated class has long rejected the tribal and religious elements as organising principles of society. The Sunni have little competence in functioning independently of the state, and some of their most energetic elements are taken up in the essentially anarchist Wahabbi/Salafi movement. The Shi'i themselves are subject to fierce divisions between those who opposed Saddam within Iraq (the Sadrists), those who allied with Iran, traditionally the enemy of Arab Iraq (SCIRI, al-Dawa) and those who were willing to put up with Saddam (Sistani).

The best organised political force in the country is the Kurds who, however, could be described as anti-Iraqi. Though they are often represented by supporters of American policy as representative of Iraqi opinion (the very emotional appeal for 'freedom' at the last conference of the British Labour Party for example), they are 'Iraqi' in the same way the Irish in the nineteenth century were 'British'. They have had something resembling a state (more accurately two mutually hostile states) of their own since 1991. Their principle aim is to secure their already existing autonomy and expand the area under their control by taking Kirkuk and possibly Mosul. Everything else in the Iraqi polity will oppose this tooth and nail.

It should be remembered that in the 1970s the Ba¹ath government was willing to give the Kurds a large degree of autonomy in more or less the area they occupy at present. The sticking point then (the source of all their subsequent sufferings) was their determination to secure Kirkuk and Mosul. This sticking point is still with us.

It is clear that what is required in Iraq is a body capable of restoring Iraqi unity, a body Iraqis will be able to recognise as representative. Since Arab/Kurd unity may be impossible I should perhaps say 'most Iraqi Arabs'. There are, so far as I can see, two ways in which such a body might emerge: a united resistance with a unified leadership that secured the support or at least acquiescence, of a clear majority of the population after the manner of the Algerian FLN. Or elections to an assembly.

The elections that were held in January have been hailed as a success for the American occupation and even as a vindication of the invasion. But the holding of elections at this stage was not an American idea. It was an Iraqi idea and it has been largely ruined by the way it was implemented by the Americans.

The American idea was that elections would follow agreement on a constitution which would be worked out by an unelected body. The Americans argued that real universal elections could not be held without a constitution or at least without an up-to-date electoral roll. They were forced into agreeing to pre-constitutional elections by massive Shi'i demonstrations following the call of Ayatollah al-Sistani. For a period around January 2004 it seemed there was a real prospect of a united Shi'i/Sunni resistance. Faced with that prospect the Americans backed down. But grudgingly. Sistani wanted the elections to be held in May. Had the Americans agreed to that it is possible (of course one can never be certain) that much of the bloodshed of 2004 - massacre in Najaf, massacre in Fallujah - could have been avoided. The chances of a substantial Sunni participation would certainly have been much better. The pretext for postponing it to January 2005 was the need for an improvement in the security situation (!) and there was some talk - abandoned for obvious reasons - of trying to compile a superior electoral roll. Sistani had proposed that the existing ration card entitlement could be used and in the event that was largely what was done.

One wonders however whether the Americans really wanted the emergence of a genuinely representative centre to Iraqi political life. One certainly wonders if the 'interim Prime Minister', Iyad Allawi, whose political existence is totally dependent on the Americans can have wanted it. Certainly they have not behaved in such a way as to guarantee a good result. The pretext for the destruction of Fallujah was that it would facilitate elections. As unconvincing pretexts go that ranks with 'weapons of mass destruction' as the pretext for the blockade of Iraq which reduced its population to penury and the invasion which finally destroyed it altogether. The challenge for anyone seriously wanting to rebuild Iraqi political life is to overcome the Sunni/Shi'i division. The policies pursued in the run-up to the election were calculated to do the opposite.

It should not be assumed that this was a product of American stupidity. According to their own lights they may well have handled a difficult situation with considerable skill - precisely the sort of skill that the American 'Ambassador' to Iraq John Negroponte displayed when he was the American Ambassador to the Honduras in the 1980s. By giving Sistani his elections they detached him from the resistance. By postponing the elections to January 2005 they prevented them from becoming a straightforward expression of the anti-American unity that was forming in early 2004. When they attacked Fallujah in April 2004 they were simultaneously facing substantial armed Shi'i opposition. By giving the Sunni resistance a victory at that time they were able to concentrate their attention on the militarily much less sophisticated followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. They gained the tacit support of Sistani who undoubtedly saw the Sadrists as a challenge to his own authority, especially in Najaf. He withdrew himself at the critical moment. He probably did not expect the US assault in Najaf to be quite as destructive as it was but this too has probably worked to the US advantage since it has almost certainly tarnished Sistani's reputation.

I have read somewhere that the Americans killed around 7,000 of Sadr's followers - many of whom were very young. Had they been living in Srebrenica they would certainly have been called 'men and boys'. For the moment this massacre of men and boys seems to have had the desired effect and Sadr has been comparatively quiet. This in turn enabled the Americans to turn their full attention to Fallujah without fear of a simultaneous Shi'i uprising. Sadr was nursing his wounds; Sistani's eyes were fixed on the election.

The Shi'i majority could hope that the election would improve their position; the Sunni minority needed persuading. Instead they were victims of atrocity. But again their hostility to the elections - the predictable consequence of American policy - was no bad thing from an American point of view. Should the Assembly displease the Americans - say, by supporting Iran in the trial of strength we are all expecting shortly - the Americans can always point to its unrepresentative character. If the worst comes to the worst and the Assembly actually exercises something resembling real power, the Americans can then pose as the defenders of the Sunni!

Not that the Assembly will be in much of a position to displease the Americans or to exercise anything resembling real power. We may assume that most of those who went to the polls did so thinking, like most of the American and British media, that they were electing a 'government', It is however by no means clear that this is the case. The Assembly is in the first instance charged with devising a constitution. This means reconciling the conflicting ambitions of Arabs and Kurds, especially regarding Kirkuk, a task that might be impossible. The final constitution must be submitted to a referendum and any three provinces can veto it. Since the Kurds have three provinces they have a veto. Equally any three provinces could veto a constitution that wasn't sufficiently Islamic. Or sufficiently secular.

With regard to immediate governing powers, the assembly choose a three person presidential council and a Prime Minister. These form the Executive and thenceforth they function more or less independently of the Assembly. The Assembly can pass legislation but the executive can veto it. After such a veto any such legislation will require a two thirds majority. Otherwise the legislation remains that which was bequeathed by the administration of Paul Bremer, designed to favour the internationalisation of the Iraqi economy.

We may assume that the three Presidents will be a Kurd, a Sunni, and a Shi'i. They will be the product of the same kind of horse trading that produced the existing presidency. Assembly members have no relation to any constituency; they are there simply by virtue of their position on a list and will be wholly dependent on their party leaders - generally the same people as featured in the American-appointed 'Iraqi Governing Council' (a number of independents were originally supposed to be standing who would have been dependent on local support, but these were all intimidated away by the 'insurgency'. It is curious how often particular acts of the insurgency seem to favour American interests). Unlike, say, the British Parliament at the time of Charles I, or the German Parliament under the Kaiser, they will have no power over the budget. The Executive will remain dependent for its financing on the good will of the 'international community.'

All this hardly amounts to a body able to challenge American power. And I have not mentioned the problems posed by the continuing insurgency. Given that many candidates did not wish their names to be known for fear of reprisals, where will this Assembly meet? In the Green Zone? Will they have to live in the Green Zone? Will they have to queue up to be searched entering the Green Zone? What sort of facilities and security can be provided outside the Green Zone?

All told then it seems likely that after a certain amount of bargaining has been done among the party leaders an executive will emerge that will bear more than a passing resemblance to the present administration. Ordinary Assembly members will have little or no influence over the course of events. Perhaps there will be an occasional vote of censure which will cause a momentary embarrassment. For the most part, though, the Assembly, when and if it meets, will be paralysed by its constitution-writing role. Since this has been sold to the Iraqi people as 'democracy' - and since many Iraqis have imagined that 'democracy' could be a means of curbing American power - it may be that the idea of 'democracy' will be seriously discredited.

Prophecy is dangerous and I can hope that I am wrong. In particular, the overwhelming preponderance of the pro-Iranian Shi'i parties (utterly unrepresentative of the Iraqi people as a whole) might give them a strength that enables them to assert independence from the Americans. Though they won't be able to do very much without the consent of the pro-American Kurds (one part of whom, Talabani's faction, are also pro-Iranian). The best ground for hope I can see is that the Iraqi people who thought they were voting for a government will become very angry when they realise they have not voted for a government, and that in this way a unity in resistance might once again begin to be possible.


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