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
This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.