Tens of thousands of celebrating Iraqis welcomed Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq’s main Islamic movement, as he journeyed through the south of the country to Najaf after his return from exile in Islamic Iran on May 10. Thousands of Iraqis travelled to the border crossing at Shamsaleh to welcome him early that day after it was confirmed that he was expected to return. He had confirmed his intention to return, and his plans to work for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iraq, while giving the jum’a khutbah in Tehran the previous day.
He received a massive welcome at a rally in Basra later that day, and formal and informal rallies in towns throughout the south of the country, culminating in his arrival in Najaf, his birthplace and family home, on May 12. A new headquarters for him there had already been prepared. Everywhere slogans were raised against the US occupation of Iraq and in favour of the establishment of Islamic government. The scenes were a graphic and unignorable reminder to both the Americans and other Iraqi political factions of the true feeling of Iraq’s people, and the fact that they look to Iraq’s ulama and Islamic movements for leadership.
Just hours before Ayatullah Baqir al-Hakim announced his plans in Tehran on May 9, the US had tabled a draft resolution at the UN Security Council, by which they hope to legitimise their occupation of the country and their control of its oil resources. Earlier in the week, they had also announced the appointment of a new head of their Iraqi administration; diplomat Paul Bremer effectively takes over from Jay Garner, who has been blamed for the US’s failure to establish secure control over the country, in what is becoming a major shake-up of the US’s senior personnel in Iraq.
Ayatullah al-Hakim acknowledged the close links between the Iraqi people and the Islamic state of Iran during his khutbah in Tehran. “We were Iran’s guests for 23 years,” he said. “Now, we thank the Iranian people and their elite Revolutionary Guards for their hospitality.” He then went on to speak about Iraq, saying: “The future of Iraq belongs to Iraq. Ensuring the preservation of Iraq’s independence is our key challenge.”
Addressing a gathering of over 60,000 people in the main stadium in Basra the next day, he told Iraqis that they should reject any imposed government, and that they should not fear US or British troops: “We are not slaves, except for slaves of God,” he said. “We are not prisoners. We are not afraid of the forces that are around us now and watching us… We refuse any imposed government. We are afraid neither of America nor Britain. Would the Americans like to be ruled by the British? So how can you expect us to be ruled by the Americans?”
He also spoke, appropriately as the gathering was dotted with pictures of the late Imam Khomeini as well as himself, of his vision for Iraq’s Islamic future. His object, he said, was the establishment of justice. This, he said, “comes from two elements: Islam and the rule of the people, which is also known as democracy.”
Despite the massive shows of support for Ayatullah Hakim, however, he and the Majlis al-Aala l’il-Thawra al-Islami f’il-Iraq – the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), widely known simply as the Majlis – know that they are operating in an extremely uncertain environment, and one in which the Americans remain the dominant force.
At the same time, the Majlis’s position will be challenged by a number of other groups in Iraq, even within its most natural supporters, Iraq’s Shi’i majority in the south of the country. Just as Imam Khomeini’s radical position in Iran was not accepted by some conservative Iranian ulama who felt that their traditionally quietist style and privileged position in Iranian society should not be risked by overt political activism, so there are similar attitudes among some senior ulama in Iraq, who survived Saddam Hussain’s rule by keeping their heads down.
There are also local Shi’i leaders who have taken a more assertive approach, carving out their own local political constituencies and support, who now feel threatened by the return of Majlis leaders. Some have already claimed that the Majlis has limited standing inside Iraq because its leadership have been out of the country for so long. There are plenty of other groups in Iraq, among them pro-Western politicians, other secular factions, and sectors of the community who may be wary of majority domination, who would seek to exploit these perceived divisions.
On the other hand, Ayatullah Hakim and the Majlis are respected by Iraqis and Iraqi leaders in all parts of the country. Their senior position among opposition groups was recognised at the meeting of anti-Saddam leaders in London in December, and they are regarded as a mature and realistic force in politics by many of those genuinely committed to the welfare of all Iraqis, including many non-Shi’is. The political positions they have taken before, during and since the US invasion have been widely supported.
Although Ayatullah Hakim has only now returned to Iraq, Majlis leaders have been active there since Saddam’s fall, under the political leadership of his younger brother Hujjatul-Islam Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who has been working with leaders of other Iraqi groups on the establishment of an interim government. Their emphasis has been on working with other Iraqi groups in order to be able to provide as united a front as possible against America’s plans for the country. In this, the Majlis has received the support of several other Iraqi organizations, including for example the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
It is widely expected that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim will remain the main political leader in the Majlis’s Iraqi organization, despite Ayatullah Hakim’s return to Iraq. Ayatullah Hakim is expected to remain in Najaf and outside direct political involvement, while offering guidance and leadership to all Iraqis.
The challenges Iraqis are facing in resisting US occupation of their country were amply demonstrated in a number of major developments. Armed American troops remain in virtually all towns in the country, refusing to serve the people or help restore the vital services they themselves destroyed during their invasion, but guarding government buildings and other facilities regarded as essential to Western interests. Their willingness to turn their guns on unarmed Iraqis who dare to protest their presence was demonstrated on April 28 and 30, when US troops killed 16 Iraqis by firing on peaceful demonstrators in the town of Fallujah.
Politically, meanwhile, the Americans appear to be becoming increasingly determined that their interests can best be served by a strong central government, based on political leaders whose position depends on US support, including returning secularists without any local support, and former officials of the Ba’athist regime. This strategy has been increasingly advocated by right-wing policy commentators in the US close to the Washington regime.
Writing in the New York Post on April 28, the notorious zionist Daniel Pipes – recently appointed to the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism taskforce – advocated the installation of a pro-Western “strongman” (ie. dictator), who would be an Iraqi equivalent of Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan. “As for the coalition forces, after installing a strongman they should phase out their visible role and pull back to a few military bases away from population centers… From these they can quietly serve as the military partner of the new government, guaranteeing its ultimate security.” And, of course, America’s crucial economic (oil, pipelines, ports, trade) and geopolitical interests.
A similar line was taken by Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times on April 30, and imagining what advice Saddam Hussain might give George W. Bush: “If you want to build a self-governing authority here, you had better understand that ‘shock and awe’ is not just for war-making… It’s an everyday tool for running this place. I ran Iraq with an iron fist. You are trying to run it on the cheap with an iron finger. No way.” So much for democracy.
The precise form of the interim government that the US establishes remains to be seen; it has multi-faceted interests, ranging from securing its control, and ensuring that truly popular Iraqi political forces do not establish any power base, to trying to create at least an illusion of democracy and popular legitimacy. However, its substantial economic interests in Iraq, and how it plans to administer them, were revealed in the draft resolution on Iraq’s future that it submitted to the UN Security Council on May 9.
This is presented as a plan for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq, which it does indeed do; but along with that, it is also trying to legitimise the US’s illegal invasion and occupation of the country; to approve an indefinite US military occupation ; and give the US total control of all Iraq’s oil resources and revenues.
In the absence of any Iraqi government, the draft resolution assigns all-encompassing political and economic powers, including effective control of the revenues from Iraq’s oil exports, to the US and its (very junior) military allies, which are collectively designated “the Authority”. In this guise, the US will decide all aspects of policy in Baghdad, including the establishment of the Iraqi interim authority and an Iraqi Assistance Fund. This fund, which will include the revenues from “all export sales of petroleum, petroleum products and natural gas”, will be “disbursed at the direction of the Authority, in consultation with the Iraqi interim authority”: in other words, by the US and whatever Iraqis it chooses to install as its proxies in Baghdad.
The US’s control over Iraqi resources will be total. The Iraqi Assistance Fund will hold not only the proceeds from Iraqi oil exports, but also the billions of dollars held by the UN from its “oil-for-food” program, along with any Iraqi government funds or financial assets or those of Saddam Hussain and other senior officials currently held abroad. To ensure that there will be no other claims on the money, the US has inserted a clause to render the monies in the Iraqi Assistance Fund immune from any legal action anywhere in the world “in relation of claims, of whatever kind and whenever accrued, against Iraq or any instrumentality or agents thereof”. The Bush administration will be able to disburse billions of dollars in oil revenues and other financial assets, free of any legal oversight or impediment.
The processes or timetable for the establishment and empowerment of an ‘independent’ Iraqi government are all left to the discretion of Washington. Moreover, the US will retain these powers indefinitely: the Authority will exercise its responsibilities “for an initial period of 12 months … to continue thereafter as necessary unless the Security Council decides otherwise.” In other words, to end the US occupation of Iraq will require a new UN resolution, which the US could, of course, veto.
The resolution, if passed, reduces the UN’s role to a purely nominal one. A UN representative will sit on an international advisory board, along with those of the IMF and World Bank, that will audit the Iraqi Assistance Fund. A special UN coordinator will be appointed for Iraq, but will be limited to liaising between the US and various UN and other international agencies. In other words, various representatives and agencies, inside and outside Iraq, can “consult”, “assist” and “coordinate”; but the draft resolution unambiguously assigns all real decision-making power to Washington.
The significance of the resolution does not rest only in its implications for Iraq. Before the war, Bush warned the UN that it would be made irrelevant if it did not support the US’s plans for Iraq. He is now offering it a subordinate role in Washington’s new empire. At the same time the UN will remain a supposedly international body bestowing some degree of spurious legitimacy on the US’s hegemony, just as Saddam Hussain’s Ba’athist government used a rubber-stamp ‘Parliament’ to approve his decrees.
Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.