By Mark Danner
[This essay appears in the April 28th issue of the New York Review of Books.]
“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.”
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 far off.
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.
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,” 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 struck — 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 down.
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).
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.
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.
What struck me about this was not the macabre innovation (the use of a bicycle on the Shiite 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 Shiite 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. 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 million dollars.”)
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,” 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 work.”
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 Shiite rebel (who, officially, was boycotting the vote), and one for List 169, the great Shiite 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 Saddam.
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 Shiite List? You are Shiite?
“Yes, I am Shiite 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 Shia, 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 Shiites 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 the Republicans.'”
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! Boom!”
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. 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 polling places.
I visited one of these in the afternoon, in the heavily Shia 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 cameras.
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. 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 Shiite 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, Shiites voted for the Shiite 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 Shiites 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. Shiites 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 election failed.
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 Shiites, 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 Shia, powerfully influenced by Islamic law and favorably inclined toward the United States’ foremost enemy in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
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.
–March 31, 2005
[This is the first of two articles.]
1. 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.
2. See Iraq 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 deal.
3. See “Sources Say Hundreds of Iraq Attacks Planned,” CNN, January 20, 2005.
4. See my “Delusions in Baghdad,” The New York Review, December 12, 2003.
5. See Edward Wong, “American Jails in Iraq Bursting with Detainees,” The New York Times, March 4, 2005.
6. “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.
7. See Dexter Filkins, “On Bus, Bicycle and Foot, Suicide Bombers Aim at a Shiite Holy Day,” The New York Times, February 20, 2005.
8. See Iraq Index, p. 12. The real wave of kidnappings of foreign nationals began in April 2004, when forty-three were seized.
9. See especially Robert Fisk, “Curbs Leaving Big Holes in Reporting about Iraq,” The Independent, January 17, 2005.
10. See John F. Burns, “US Shouldn’t Cut Force Soon, Iraqi Leaders Say,” The New York Times, February 2, 2005.
11. 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.
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
This article appears in The New York Review of Books, April 28, 2005, and has been posted online at Tomdispatch.com by permission of NYRB‘s editors.