After Iraq’s Wartime Elections

Original story found here.

Robert Fisk is the award-winning journalist of the London-based Independent newspaper, and he has long been a consistent critic of American imperial policies in the Middle East. “But it was the sight of those thousands of Shi’ites, the women mostly in black hejab covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away,” he reported from Baghdad on election day. “If Osama bin Laden had called these elections an apostasy, these people, who represent 60{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraq, did not heed his threats.”

The failure of the U.S.-backed election in Iraq is not that it was illegitimate for most Iraqis but that the exercise has only deepened Iraq’s sectarian divisions and perhaps moved the country closer toward the specter of a full-scale civil war. Progressives should remain critical of the January 30 election but not for the reasons that most have articulated so far. Many anti-war critics were so busy pooh-poohing the balloting as a farce engineered by the Bush administration that they forgot that Washington had only agreed to the election under Iraqi Shi’ite pressure. The first U.S. plan for Iraq was to hold indirect elections through regional caucuses, a process that would have lent itself far more easily to American manipulation. But Iraq’s Shi’ite grand ayatollah, Ali Sistani, and other Iraqis said no.

Actually, the election results are not likely to enhance American influence over Iraq. According to the reliable Arab-run polling firm, Zogby International, more than two-thirds of Iraq’s Shi’ites want U.S. forces out of Iraq either immediately or once the elected government is in place. That goal may be unrealistic, since any sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces could well plunge Iraq into civil war, but it underscores that the election was a step forward for Iraqi sovereignty, despite the conditions of U.S. military occupation in which it took place. U.S. progressives could help Iraqis reach their goal by ensuring that a transfer of power actually occurs.

Only last month, David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, complained that by going ahead with the election the Bush administration would “help install an Iraqi government whose key leaders were trained in Iran.” He went on to say “in terms of strategy,” the Bush administration “is a riderless horse.” In other words, the administration’s original plan to install the Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, as a proxy to control both the Iraqi people and their oil has failed, and now the administration is finding its own rhetoric catching up with itself in last Sunday’s election in the form of an expected Shi’ite victory.

Many if not most progressives, however, have downplayed Iraq’s sectarian divisions, since to acknowledge them might lead one to admit that the anti-American insurgents are drawn mainly from the nation’s long-privileged Sunni Arab minority constituting less than 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the Iraqi population. (The 2001 U.S. State Department Human Rights report on Iraq, released in 2002, reported that Sunni Arabs represented 13-16{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the Iraqi population.) During Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sunni Arabs dominated not only the ruling Ba’ath Party but also the Iraqi military’s officer corps and elite troops.

Strange Bedfellows

Ironically, anti-war activists who discount the divisions in Iraq find themselves bedfellows with senior Bush administration officials like Steve Hadley, the new White House national security adviser. In a Washington Post op-ed article one day before the Iraqi election, Hadley, too, pooh-poohed the notion that Iraq’s sectarian splits really matter. Unlike Hadley, U.S. progressives feel that the nonparticipation of Sunni voters casts a pall on the election. But what most progressives are still reluctant to concede is that for most Shi’ites and for nearly all Kurds, who together amount to at least 80{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the population, the election did matter.

Of course, Iraq’s sectarian tensions should not be overblown, and they have far more to do with political power than with either religion or ethnicity. In Baghdad, Sunnis and Shi’ites have often intermarried and lived side by side in peace. But it is undeniable that for decades both Shi’ites and Kurds, albeit in different regions, collectively fought against and were persecuted by Saddam’s Ba’athist government. As the respected Middle East expert Juan Cole, a major critic of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, wrote in his most recent book:

“Probably a majority of Shi’ites joined the ranks of the opposition in the fateful spring of 1991 when, in the wake of the defeat inflicted on the regime by the U.S. and its allies, Shi’ites in Najaf, Karbala, Basra and elsewhere rose up against the Ba’ath. The regime’s retaliation was brutal and effective, leaving countless casualties (rumors of 40,000 dead in Karbala alone have reached me from Iraqi expatriates). More recently, the Iraqi government has waged ecological war on the marsh Shi’ites of the south, draining their swamps and forcing tens of thousands of them to flee to Iran.”

Many American progressives have never acknowledged the tragedy of the failed spring uprisings in 1991, what countless Iraqis at the time called their anti-Saddam intifada. During and after the 1991 Gulf War, then-President George H.W. Bush repeatedly urged Iraqis to oust Saddam and “toss him aside.” Within weeks, a full-scale insurgency was under way both south and north of Baghdad. “Saddam Hussein faces his most serious political challenge in more than 20 years in power,” wrote the CIA in a secret report in the middle of the month-long uprisings. “Time is not on his side.”

Anti-Saddam rebels­ dominated by both Shi’ites and Kurds­fought for weeks after the 1991 Gulf War in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, but Saddam’s remaining helicopter gunships, tanks, and elite forces eventually wiped them out. Why did the Bush I administration abandon the rebellion that it helped to inspire? In their joint memoir, George H.W. Bush and his then-national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, wrote: “We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf” and the possibility of “[b]reaking up the Iraqi state.”

According to this logic, the January 30 election represents a triumph not for the United States but for Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, which is now moving toward the kind of self-empowerment and self-determination that it has long deserved. Progressives familiar with Iraqi history can understand why neither Shi’ites nor Kurds have much love for Sunni Arab Ba’athists, thousands of whom are currently anti-American insurgents. But some anti-war figures, like novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, have not only minimized the roots of today’s indigenous Iraqi insurgency but have unabashedly apologized for the indiscriminate use of violence against Iraqi civilians. “[I]f we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity,” said Roy in a speech in San Francisco last summer.

Anti-war activists like Roy have long championed the poorest of Iraqis, whose children suffered the most in the 1990s under U.S.-backed, UN economic sanctions. But how many of these same anti-war activists have been willing to acknowledge that most of these Iraqis were Shi’as and that they suffered domestically under Saddam?

Other progressives have­ perhaps unwittingly­ become bedfellows with bigots who stereotype Shi’ite Muslims, unfairly painting Iraq’s Shi’ite Arab majority as an alleged tool of Shi’ite Persian clerics who dominate neighboring Iran. This may be a convenient cheap shot at the Bush administration, but it is based on ignorance. Scholars like Moojan Momen, author of the first major English-language text on Shi’ite Islam, Yitzhak Nakash, who wrote the first study of Iraqi Shi’ites, and Juan Cole have documented that Iraqi Shi’ites have their own particular history, long competing for influence with Iranian clerics. If anything, Iraq’s Shi’ites are likely to assert themselves even more if given the chance.

The one Iraqi Shi’ite group that has been lauded by some anti-war columnists is the al-Mahdi militia led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His father­, a widely revered cleric­, and two brothers were all murdered by Saddam, whose administration tortured and killed hundreds of Shi’ite clerics. The young al-Sadr later ordered his followers to rise up against U.S. troops after the chief U.S. occupying authority in Iraq, Paul Bremer, closed down his movement’s newspaper. The irony of progressives’ support for al-Sadr is that he is among the most socially reactionary of Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders (he has not earned the status of cleric) and has, in his opportunistic search for allies, reached out to the misogynist, anti-democratic mullahs who run Iran. The most respected Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, Ali Sistani, is Iranian-born, but he has consistently sought to keep theology and politics at least somewhat separate in a “quietist” tradition based on ancient Shi’ite scriptures, unlike the modern ruling Shi’ite theocracy in Iran.

Iraq is still a bloody mess, and the choice now for both Iraq’s elected government and the United States is whether to pursue a military victory over the insurgents or to reach out to them and to Iraq’s Sunni Arab community to negotiate a settlement of the ongoing conflict. U.S. progressives should support attempts at reconciliation in order to minimize further bloodshed.

The El Salvador Parallel

The wartime experience in El Salvador is instructive, although not in the ways that senior Bush administration officials like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld contend. Both men claim that U.S.-backed elections in El Salvador helped defeat the rebel insurgency. What they forget is that El Salvador’s civil war went on for 10 years after the country’s first election, and that what ended the war was not an election but the joint decision by the Bush I administration and El Salvador’s second elected government to finally stop trying to eliminate the rebels and instead pursue a negotiated settlement.

Nor is the Central America experience instructive in the way that some anonymous Pentagon officials have recently suggested, when they leaked to Newsweek the idea that at least some U.S. military planners in Iraq now want to promote Iraqi death squads based on their experience in the 1980s in El Salvador. (Anyone wishing to thoroughly explore this story should see David Holiday’s Central America blog) The use of such dirty tactics in Iraq would be one sure way to turn the current level of sectarian violence into a bloodbath with U.S. troops stuck in the middle, perhaps fighting both sides.

What progressives forget when comparing El Salvador and Iraq is that El Salvador’s insurgents were nearly all Marxists of one stripe or another. In contrast, Iraq’s anti-American insurgents are nearly all right-wingers of one stripe or another­either Sunni Arab nationalists or Islamic Wahaabi fundamentalists­and despise most Iraqi leftists, including the Iraqi Communist Party. U.S. Labor Against the War and the Iraqi Communist Party have recently denounced the murder of a leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, Hadi Salih, by what both groups suggested were Ba’athist insurgents. The Iraqi Communist Party participated in the January 30 election, faring better than many Western progressives and Bush administration officials expected. Kurdish candidates also fared well, given their small numbers, and Shi’ite candidates led the pack.

It is time for Westerners of all political persuasions to finally start seeing Iraq’s richly diverse people for who they are instead of kicking them like footballs to try to advance a political agenda.

Who Are the Progressives in Iraq?: The Left, the Right, and the Islamists

Original story found here.

One event in Baghdad went unreported this month, not only by the mainstream media but also by the “alternative” press, even though it implies that U.S. control over Iraq’s political future may already be waning. In August, the White House supported the establishment of an Iraqi National Council comprising 100 Iraqis from various tribal, ethnic, and religious groups in an effort to influence the composition of an electoral oversight body. Yet this month, two large political parties, each of which has long been viewed with suspicion by Washington, came out ahead in the voting.

Many criticize the legitimacy of the process by which the Bush administration is hoping to steer Iraq toward national elections next January. The indirect elections took place under war conditions, and the Associated Press reported that mortars exploded near the convention site in Baghdad where delegates gathered. Iraqi delegates also expanded the number of vice-chairs in the national council from two to four. Had they not done so, the results might have been even more troubling for the White House.

In the September balloting, the delegate from the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Jawad al-Maliki, came in first with 56 votes. This is a Shi’ite group that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lambasted as a tool of Iran during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Another Iraqi even less attractive to Washington, the Secretary General of the Iraqi Communist Party (, Hamid Majid Moussa, came in second with 55 votes. Meanwhile, Rasim al-Awadi, the delegate from the Iraqi National Accord — the group once backed by the CIA and whose leader, Iyad Allawi, who was supported by the Bush administration to become the Iraqi prime minister — came in third with 53 votes. Nasir A`if al-Ani — the delegate from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, sympathetic to the Ba’athist-based, anti-American resistance operating both west and north of Baghdad — came in fourth with 48 votes.

By any count, getting only one ally elected out of four seats on this potentially all-important electoral oversight body does not bode well for the Bush administration. After the Iraqi National Council was formed, but before it voted, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, while at President Bush’s family ranch in Crawford, Texas, declared: “The selection of the council is a sign that the Iraqi people will not allow terrorist elements to stand in the way of their democratic future.”

But what if elections in Iraq early next year lead to a government unlike anything ever expected by the Bush administration? The respected Arabist from the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, was among the first to report the Iraqi National Council election results on his blog, “So,” he quipped, “this list is further evidence that the U.S. invaded Iraq to install in power a coalition of Communists, Islamists and ex-Ba’athist nationalists. If you had said such a thing 3 years ago you would have been laughed at.”

My Enemy’s Friends

Many American leftists seem to know little about their Iraqi counterparts, since understanding the role of the Iraqi left requires a nuanced approach. Unfortunately the knee-jerk, anti-imperialist analysis of groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R. has wormed its way into several progressive outlets. Dispatches and columns in The Nation as well as reports and commentary on the independently syndicated radio program “Democracy Now” have all but ignored the role of Iraqi progressives while highlighting, if not championing, the various factions of the Iraqi-based resistance against the U.S.-led occupation without bothering to ask who these groups are and what they represent for Iraqis.

By now several things about the Iraq War seem clear. The U.S.-led invasion was the most dangerous and reckless step taken by the United States since the Vietnam War, and America is already paying dearly and is sure to pay an even steeper price in the future for this imprudent action. More than 1,000 American soldiers have died in little more than a year in a campaign that has undermined U.S. security more profoundly than even candidate John Kerry has managed to articulate. Never has the United States (according to international public opinion polls) been so resented, if not loathed, by so many people around the world. And this is exactly the kind of environment in which al-Qaida terrorists — who do represent a real and ongoing threat to the United States and others — thrive.

U.S. activists who demonstrated against the Iraq War made an invaluable contribution by letting the rest of the world know that millions of Americans opposed the U.S.-led invasion. But the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend. To think otherwise is to embrace an Orwellian logic that makes anti-war Americans appear not only uninformed but also as cynical as the pro-war protagonists whom they oppose. The irony of the Iraq War is that the Bush administration made a unilateral decision to invade a nation in order to overthrow a leader who ranked among the most despised despots in the world but, in so doing, managed to turn countless people in many nations against the United States.

Who Hated Saddam?

Saddam Hussein’s detractors have always included none other than Osama bin Laden, who long derided the Iraqi leader as either an “infidel” or a “false Muslim” nearly every time he has ever mentioned his name in any interview or recorded statement. The most radical of Muslims, in fact, know all too well that no modern Arab government tortured and murdered as many Muslims as did Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. No Middle Eastern leader, either, has tortured and murdered as many communists as Saddam did during the decades of his regime.

The Arab Nationalist Renaissance [or] Ba’athist Party has been both anti-communist and anti-Islamic and unabashedly championed ethnic nationalism. In Iraq, the Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein instituted a minority-based government. Ethnic Arabs of the mainstream Sunni Muslim faith have long dominated the Ba’ath Party, even though Sunni Arabs today constitute at most 17{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the Iraqi population, just a bit above the percentage of whites in South Africa.

Ethnic Arabs of the Shi’ite Muslim sect, meanwhile, are nearly as numerous in Iraq as blacks are in South Africa. Anyone interested in empowering the poor should also know that Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims have long been the most indigent of Iraqis and suffered the most during the U.S.-backed UN sanctions. Shi’ite males were often little more than cannon fodder for Saddam’s various military adventures. Like the Shi’ites, Iraq’s Kurds, about 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the population, never enjoyed more than token representation under Saddam.

Resistance to Saddam’s rule took many forms from 1979 to 2003, with anti-Saddam groups organized largely along Shi’ite Islamic, Kurdish nationalist, or Communist Party lines. Each of these groups lost tens of thousands of adherents to brutal counterinsurgency sweeps conducted by the Ba’athist government. Some American leftists apologized for Saddam’s government, saying it was no worse than many others in the world. But Saddam Hussein’s behavior deserves a category for itself, employing vicious repression and often including the torture and rape of family members of suspected dissidents. Few rulers anywhere in the world were so brutal, with one exception of the CIA-backed government in Guatemala during the l980s. (Both that government and Saddam’s, it is worth noting, were clandestinely aided by the United States during the Reagan administration.)

In more recent years, U.S. leftists were not the only ones who ignored the various Iraqi groups that had long resisted Saddam’s tyranny. The U.S. right, led most recently by the neoconservatives of the Bush administration, also ignored these resistance groups when they sought Iraqi allies during the buildup to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Instead of reaching out to broad-based, anti-Saddam groups like either the Shiite Muslim opposition or the secular leftist resistance, both of which still had either armed or clandestine cadres inside Iraq as late as 2003, the Bush administration allied itself instead with a group of ex-monarchists led by the now-discredited Ahmed Chalabi. A solid member of the old ruling class, Chalabi’s father was the wealthiest man in Baghdad in 1958, when Iraq’s short-lived, British-imposed monarchy was overthrown. The Ba’athists, eventually led by Saddam, came out on top in the ensuing power struggle, but both the Shi’ite majority and Iraq’s second-largest population group, the Kurds, remained excluded from wealth as well as power.

The Resistance Versus the Revolutionaries

There are several factions fighting U.S.-led forces inside Iraq today, and the heavy-handedness of the U.S. occupation has spurred many individual Iraqi nationalists to join them. American abuses have included breaking into homes, with male troops often manhandling women and terrifying children, firing into populated areas, causing many civilian casualties, and humiliating–as well as torturing–Iraqis inside Abu Ghraib prison.

Yet, all of the organized groups among the Iraqi resistance are reactionary forces of one kind or another. The resistance around and between the cities of Falluja, Tikrit, and Baghdad in the so-called “Sunni triangle” is led by ex-Ba’athists who aspire to return the old minority-based dictatorship to power. As Juan Cole points out, Nasir A`if al-Ani, the Sunni delegate to the Iraqi National Council from the Iraqi Islamic Party, does not even recognize the Shi’a people as a majority in Iraq (Not even the most recalcitrant Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa pretended that blacks were a minority).

Others like The Nation‘s Naomi Klein, meanwhile, seem to have naively fallen for the al-Mahdi militia that recently fought U.S. Marines in Najaf. The al-Mahdi militia is a loosely organized Shi’ite opposition group led by Muqtada al-Sadr. He is a young man who inherited his role after his father and two brothers were murdered by Saddam. Lacking either the maturity or training of a senior cleric, al-Sadr has tried to lure supporters from more-respected Shiite clerics by promoting militant enforcement of the most fundamental tenets of Shiite Islam, including the explicit repression of gays and women.

The third sizable element of resistance inside Iraq is composed of foreign Islamist members of al-Qaida, who, like both the Saudi royal family and Osama bin Laden, practice an even more extreme version of Islam, Wahaabism. This group’s recent victims may include two kidnapped Italian women who work for the Italian group A Bridge to Baghdad, which, like U.S. anti-war groups working in Iraq, is explicitly opposed to the U.S. occupation. The American anti-war group, Iraq Occupation Watch, seems to believe that members of the Iraqi resistance may be holding them, pointing out on its website that the abductors should recognize that the Italian women are anti-war activists. On the other hand, Democracy Now’s Jeremy Scahill and The Nation‘s Naomi Klein have written in The Guardian that a Western intelligence-backed group may be behind the abductions, suggesting that the CIA or others seized the two women to try to discredit the Iraqi opposition.

The Iraqis favored by the Bush administration may be secular, but they are hardly more admirable people. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is an ex-Ba’athist who left the Ba’ath Party in the mid-1970s. Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, reported that Allawi personally executed (with a handgun) six Iraqis in a Baghdad police station right before he became prime minister, though no proof of this crime has yet been forthcoming. Prime Minister Allawi’s democracy credentials are also not impressive. He has already banned the Qatar-based satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, and has imposed certain forms of martial law.

Neither the resistance groups cheered on by many on the American left nor the governing parties championed by the American right seem to reflect the views and aspirations of most Iraqi people, who seem to be hoping for the rise of groups independent of both Saddam’s reign and the increasingly dictatorial Allawi government. Possibilities include moderate Shiite groups and secular leftist ones, through whose leadership most Iraqis hope to find a way to empower themselves for the first time in their history.

Unfortunately, mainstream Iraqis seem to have been all but forgotten by both the American left and right. Iraqis must be valued for who they are, not as pawns in some partisan political agenda. Such chauvinism might be expected of “America-first” right-wingers, but such a position is hardly defensible for any conscientious progressive. It’s no wonder instead of seeing Iraq’s highly complex and, indeed, contradictory political reality, so many American leftists have chosen instead to cling to the comfort that comes from simple sloganeering.

–This article, after its first posting on, has been translated into Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Norwegian. Both links and text may be found on by clicking on Iraq. The Arabic version was translated by it may be found by clicking: