A giant awakens: Iraq’s shiites are on the march
As they gathered in the southern city of Basra, the cry went up from the crowd of tens of thousands:
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, isn’t happy about the Coalition Provisional Authority plan to hold provincial “caucuses” of their handpicked stooges, who would then organize a government. Last summer the Ayatollah, spiritual leader of Iraq’s 60-70% majority Shi’ites, issued a fatwa calling for direct, democratic elections to a constituent assembly, torpedoing an American scheme to write a Constitution first. Imperial proconsul Paul Bremer then came up with his caucus plan, which is now effectively blocked by the Ayatollah’s veto.
Undeterred by prudence, Bremer is now launching a campaign to get Sistani to change his mind, mobilizing his amen corner in the Iraqi Governing Council and even pushing Kofi Annan to lobby for the caucus plan. Annan has cited numerous “experts,” who all claim that a census couldn’t possibly be taken in time, the security situation is too tenuous, and giving half a dozen other reasons why the “liberation” of Iraq just can’t mean one person, one vote.
So let’s see if I get this straight: the U.S., which went to war to export “democracy” to Iraq (and the entire Middle East), in defiance of the UN, is telling the Iraqis that they aren’t ready for self-government – and is now seeking the UN Secretary General’s imprimatur for what amounts to a policy of brazen imperialism. Instead of elections, a series of elite “caucus” meetings will be held, in which the neocons, er, um, I mean, theAmericans, handpick the voters – and predetermine the results.
This malarkey about the lack of a reliable census is laughable. The Americans refused to cooperate with a plan by the Iraqis to take a census: Nuha Yousef, the Iraqi census director, guaranteed a count by December. But, as the New York Times reported, the occupation authorities nixed the plan. CPA spokesman Charles Heatly opined:
“Rushing into a census in this time frame with the security environment that we have would not give the result that people want.”
It would be funny, but for the tragedy of it: here we have the pretend-“liberators” of Iraq, preening and posturing as the great teachers of democratic governance, being taught a lesson in the real meaning of the principles they supposedly espouse.
For comic relief, we have the “Iraqi Governing Council,” appointed by Imperial Viceroy Bremer, whose role in all this is to make themselves look like sock-puppets at a carnival show. As the Times reported:
“Informed of the [census] proposal this week, several members of the governing council who advocated a direct national ballot next June 30 said they were upset that they had not seen it. The Census Bureau said it had delivered the plan to the
Governing Council on Nov. 1, but apparently it was lost in the bureaucracy.”
Oooops! Sorry about that. I guess this just means the elections will have to be delayed for sometime in the indefinite future, oh, say around 2005. But I wouldn’t count on it. By that time, if this keeps up, the insurgency will have the members of the “Governing Council” on a deck of cards, and on the run. Iraq’s Shi’ite majority is on the march – and this means big trouble for the occupiers.
So far, the Shi’ites have stood on the sidelines, waiting for the chance to take advantage of their majority status and impose an Islamic “republic” on the rest of the country. Centered in the south, which has not seen,up until now, the kind of guerrilla violence that regularly erupts in the infamous “Sunni Triangle,” such groups as the pro-Iranian Badr Brigade and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), have been patient, and so far refrained from violence – except against Christian merchants who sell alcohol and other un-Islamic consumer items. The occupiers, up to this point, have had no serious trouble from SCIRI and allied groups. That could change rapidly, and dramatically, as the Ayatollah Sistani has pointed out, if the Americans insist on their caucus plan.
In a Sunday meeting with Sistani, American officials and their Iraqi protégés ran up against a brick wall. The Ayatollah is holding fast to his demands that a direct election be held – and that the provisional government which results should have the power to rule on the question of a continuing U.S. military presence. And his position has popular support.
Sistani scotched an earlier move for a made-in-the-USA Constitution, and the Americans, for all their firepower, can’t stop him from sabotaging this one. Their neat plan to hand over fake “sovereignty” to their favored collaborators on July 1, all the while settling comfortably into permanent military bases on Iraqi soil, is running into some serious problems, even as the insurgency reaches into the previously peaceful Shi’ite south.
Short of pulverizing the country, or sending all the Ayatollahs off to Guantanamo – neither of which is an option – Bremer is stymied, and that’s why he’s counting on the United Nations and the Arab League to give the American plan at least a modicum of legitimacy.
Yes, that’s right, the UN! You remember those guys, a supposedly “anti-American” assembly of ingrates and professional bureaucrats, so loudly disdained by the “unilateralists” in Washington who, at the time of the invasion, gloried in the Security Council’s alleged irrelevance. Secretary General Annan is cited as saying that he’s sure a census is impossible under the present circumstances, but the idea that the UN has any legitimacy in Iraq seems rather odd. After all, isn’t this the same organization that enforced a draconian regime of sanctions on Iraq for over a decade? And now this same UN is saying it’s too early to have a free election.
As Jeffrey Record, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, writes in a U.S. War College monograph, in Iraq we face “irregular enemies who refuse to quit precisely because they cannot be decisively defeated.” Neither, for the moment, can the occupiers be defeated, as long as they’re willing to expend the troops and treasure. But the balance of forces could be radically shifting, and when they do, the U.S. had better be prepared for a fight.
So far, the Americans have come up against those they call “Saddamists” – by which term is meant followers of Saddam Hussein, not Oscar Wilde. These “holdouts” and “dead enders” are the “remnants” of the Ba’athist Party, we are confidently assured, as if the insurgency is petering out along with the effects of Saddam’s reign. Yet attacks on occupation forces, in terms of ferocity, numbers, and geographical reach, are increasing. It hardly takes a strategic genius to see that the fuel of Shi’ite fury spread over this smoldering rebellion will stoke the fires of resistance – and quite possibly flare up into a regional conflagration that could bring in Iran, and possibly others.
It was long ago emphatically pointed out in this space that the decision to go to war with Iraq and occupy the country effectively delivered Mesopotamia into the hands of the Iranians. Or, at least, ensured the rise of an Iranian-style Shi’ite fundamentalist regime, settling the longstanding Iraq-Iran regional tug-of-war decisively in favor of the latter. The “caucus” farce Bremer unsuccessfully tried to impose on the Iraqis is a desperate attempt to stave off this result, at least temporarily, and subordinate the Shia majority to a multi-cultural “federal” entity presided over by American and British overseers, a Potemkin Village of Middle Eastern “democracy,” neocon-style.
The revolt of the Shi’ites threatens to upend the decorative façade of the New Iraq, elaborately painted by the War Party’s public relations flacks both in and out of government. The whole edifice is slated to come crashing down just as the curtain opens on “Race for the White House, 2004.” It serves the Grand Old Party right (not that the Democrats would have done it any differently). They sold their souls to the neocons, who then sold the White House a bill of goods labeled “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and “Niger Uranium,” outing CIA agents and smearing their enemies as traitors. Now let the Republicans suffer the consequences of their Faustian bargain.
What is happening today in Iraq is proof positive of Joshua Marshall’s fascinating thesis, that the whole idea behind the neocons’ postwar plane for Iraq is that there wasn’t one. As the subhead of his Washington Monthly piece put it:
“Chaos in the Middle East is not the Bush hawks’ nightmare scenario – it’s their plan.”