Iraqis Must Stake Their Claim

The hype about Iraq’s elections on January 30 maybe occupier-prompted but the ‘occupied’ must see reason to engage. Irrespective of the authors of the January 30 elections, the Iraqi leadership must not let go of the opportunity to ‘occupy political space’ denied to them since long.

The United States’ April 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal and criminal. Criminal because it so comprehensively rebutted a rational and ostensibly workable approach to conflict resolution; of dialogue backed by force. Washington’s neo-conservative policy makers opted out of the UN-led force-backed political approach, which would have signaled the beginning of Saddam’s end. Earlier in the seventies US President Jimmy Carter’s political pressure on the Shah of Iran had initiated the downfall of Iran’s dictatorial monarch. But as Bob Woodward the Washington Post’s award wining journalist wrote in Bush at War and The Plan of Attack, the Bush administration’s definitive plan to attack Iraq had existed before 9/11.

No amount of fact-doctoring will ever establish another version of the ‘truth’ on the US invasion of Iraq. For the Iraqis the deliriously-weaponized American hordes, came from across the Atlantic to strike death and destruction to their homeland and to their people. In the killing fields of today’s Iraq the joy of the brutal dictator Saddam’s removal is absent. Following Washington’s ‘original sin’ of invading Iraq , the curse called Saddam has been replace by the curse of internal strife, the curse of extreme and frenzy evil of Saddam has been replaced the US invasion Iraqis know no security, no peace as they stand divided and destroyed like hardly ever before.

All this notwithstanding the January 30 elections can potentially be the first significant step towards reversing the US occupation. The 275 member national assembly elected in the elections will have the powers to appoint a president, Prime Minister and to draft a Constitution.

The January 30 election is correct step yet the context within which it is taking place is a greatly troubled one. Terror campaign by armed combatants is underway to discourage voters. The security situation is not improving. Human rights violations by the occupation and Iraqi security forces continue. Bush’s plans for military operations are reflected in his request for $80 billion to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Participation of the potential 14 million voters is expected to below. Expatriate Iraqi registration was far below the expectation, 237,704 opposed to the expected million. In sections of Iraqi politics sectarian polarization also continues. The election therefore cannot be a significant participatory undertaking. It will also produce no earth shaking results and bestow no immediate credibility to those elected. The authenticity of an election process design and executed by the occupying force will always remain suspect. Sunni leadership is threatening a boycott.

Given the heavy toll of armed resistance on Iraqi life, security and progress, Iraqi participation even in a US-managed election process, is the wiser route to begin the process of regaining control of their own country. Given the balance of power between the occupier and the occupied and the current state of utter mayhem in major parts of Iraq, rejection of the political process would perpetuate bloodshed and destruction more for the Iraqi people and less for the occupiers. Iraqi-armed resistance did politically undermine the occupier. It denied them a complete victory, established the limits of the occupiers’ power, prevented a genuine coalition of occupation, denied legitimization to the US invasion and occupation and subsequently forced a rethink Iraq policy by the Bush administration.

But now the law of diminishing return has begun to apply to an ‘only armed struggle’ approach confronting the US forces. Despite their public criticism, majority of Iraqi leadership understands that elections provide them some inroad into the corridors of power. Staying away from US controlled elections may mean shutting themselves out of the power scene for some time to come.

Meanwhile the contours of the Iraqi political scene and the terror campaign are becoming clearer. The terror campaign is marked by suicide bombings and by the waving of the sectarian card. It labels the shia leadership as collaborators of the occupiers and enemies of Iraq. While acquiring tremendous public attention, certain public sympathy and great public fear, these groups cannot be leading the Iraqi political leaders in the numbers game. And as the Iraqi elections promises to begin the reordering of Iraq’s internal balance of power, long dominated by the minority Sunni, the shia are relatively more enthusiastic about the elections.

The likely election players include the largest political group running in the election, the United Iraqi Alliance (U.I.A.). Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the supreme shia leader of Iraqi shias supports the UIA. Iraq’s strongest Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (S.C.I.R.I.) is its core member. Also men of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia leader last year engaged in fierce fighting with the US troops and the former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, area also in the run.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leads SCIRI. Hakim is the brother of the original SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in the August 2003 suicide bombing in Najaf. Najaf-born from a religious family, in Iran for a 20 year exile and with strong ties with the Iranian government Hakim, not an Ayatullah, now spreads the message of Shia-sunni unity. Now in the Iraqi power structure, his Iranian connection is no longer the political red herring for the US. Hakim has held a seat in the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. His deputies hold important posts in the current interim government.

Hakim calls for a ‘democratic government", for Sunni participation by offering seats to Sunni leaders even if they boycott the elections. Hakim demands that Iraq "not apply laws that are inconsistent with Islam" and calls for “respect of the Islamic identity.

Contesting the relatively religionized Hakim-led coalition is Ayad Allawi, the US-appointed Prime Minister. Allawi, a shia, represents Iraq’s traditional non-religionized politics. Allawi claims its "futile" to set a timetable now for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Iraq. Withdrawal must, he argues, be preceded by build up of Iraqi forces.

There are already indications that despite the decision by the Sunni coalition to boycott the elections, Sunni political leaders will seek participation in the power structure in the post-election phase. The Sunni leadership is staking a claim in the elected assembly and in formulating the Iraqi Constitution. Given the threat of Sunni groups to boycott the elections, these are promising signs.

The post-election Iraq could present opportunities for Iraqi political evolution. Both, the genuine multi-party representation in the post-election political set-up and the US interest to prevent complete political control of Iraq by the Iraqis would ensure that a single party does not dominate the government. Alliance-making and co-existence will therefore be inevitable. This political track laid down by the elections, barring of course any major catastrophe, will begin the weakening of the warring ways. The asymmetrical gun powder contest between the occupier and the occupied will gradually weaken, not end, as power contest shifts to the political arena.

The occupiers will have to cede a degree of political space and control. And the rightfully angered and combative Iraqis will have to move to another level of relatively high impact and less destructive way of engaging with the occupiers. The cycle of violence and resistance initiated by the US invasion and occupation will take sustained and a ‘fair play’ political engagement, the election provides a possible opening also to the politically influential Iraqis to take the post-reactive path.

Immediately after the US invasion and occupation the inevitable Iraqi reaction could have been none other than resisting occupation by all means. But now the interest of Iraqis and of Iraq a unified country, demands that the existing and the emerging Iraqi leadership take the ‘post-reactive’ path. The post-reactive path involves the Iraqis taking advantage of the opening provided by the elections and gradually expanding space for themselves within Iraq’s evolving structure of power and politics.

The election process itself, in the face of major militant threats, is a high-risk yet necessary undertaking. Post election Iraq will have to deal with issues of national unity, government authority, and relations with the US, with Iraq’s neighboring country Iran. The election outcome will be fragmented with no clear winners encouraging adjustments but risking paralyzing divisions too.

Meanwhile for the US to begin untangling the self-imposed Iraqi albatross around its neck, Washington will have to genuinely adjust to Iraq’s new political realities. No matter whom the winners.