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What's at stake in the Iraqi election?

January 28, 2005 | Pages 4 and 5

ERIC RUDER looks at the questions raised by the January 30 elections in Iraq.

GEORGE BUSH and the neo-conservative hawks who run his administration wanted the first election in post-invasion Iraq to legitimize their occupation with the election of a completely pliant government. But with their occupation spiraling deeper into crisis, U.S. officials have been content to move to Plan B: Divide and conquer.

Washington has organized an election where its primary hope is to increase divisions within the anti-U.S. opposition--by pitting Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority against Sunni Muslims, and both these groups against the minority Kurds.

Leaders of Iraq's Shiites--who make up about 60 percent of a population of 26 million--have been pressing for elections because they stand to gain the most in terms of the balance of power inside Iraq.

When the Western powers carved Iraq out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, Shiites spearheaded the resistance to Britain's attempts at colonization. So the British installed the minority Sunnis--who today make up roughly 20 percent of the population--in power and tried to exploit the religious divide. Under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government, the Shiites remained excluded from power.

Thus, from the beginning of the occupation, the U.S. has appealed to Shiite resentment of Sunni rule--in the hopes that Shia leaders would be the basis of a pliant, pro-U.S. regime.

They haven't succeeded by any means. Washington's occupation is just as hated by Shiites, and even moderate leaders like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the foremost Shia cleric in Iraq, insist that they are opposed to a continued U.S. presence. However, Sistani and those around him believe they can use the election to increase their political weight.

U.S. officials obviously hope that the net effect of the election will be to increase tensions between Shiites and Sunnis--even to the point of a violent conflict.

"The Bush administration is intentionally steering Iraq towards civil war," wrote Mike Whitney on the CounterPunch Web site. "The elections are merely the catalyst for igniting what could be a massive social upheaval. This explains the bizarre insistence on voting when security is nearly nonexistent, and where a mere 7 percent of the people can even identify the candidates."

Whitney argues that Washington's divide-and-conquer strategy "is already in full swing. The Marines deployed Shiite National Guards during the siege of Falluja with the obvious intention of exacerbating tensions between the two factions. The Kurdish Peshmerga [guerrilla fighting force] was utilized in Mosul for the very same purpose. Also, there have been a number of suspicious bombings (particularly the attacks on Sunni clerics in Najaf and Karbala) that are not at all consistent with the insurgent pattern, but suggest a clandestine (CIA?) operation to incite hostilities. Add to this the projected election results, which will tilt heavily towards the Shiites, and there's a real potential for internecine violence."

Washington's strategy has enjoyed some success. For example, during the first U.S. siege of the Sunni stronghold of Falluja last April, Shiites generally expressed their opposition to the U.S. assault and sent caravans of food and aid to help the city's residents. But during the second U.S. offensive that began in November, Sistani made no comment--and there were no caravans of aid.

Nevertheless, as Whitney points out, the focus on Washington's recent advances in dividing to conquer misses another part of the picture.

For one thing, Shiite leaders themselves are divided. The militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr--who is popular among many poor Shiites as well as Sunnis for his more uncompromising opposition to the U.S., and whose followers fought American forces in Najaf and several other cities last year--has called for a boycott of the election. "I as an Iraqi will not participate in the elections, and will not enter into this political game at all," Sadr said in early January.

Sadr's statement underlines an important point. Throughout Iraq's history, a strong nationalist tradition has cut across the split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, uniting adherents of both branches, as well as Iraq's small Christian population.

According to Asia Times commentator Pepe Escobar, the future of Iraq will depend just as much on "the interaction between Iraqi nationalists on both sides. Sunnis were very much aware that Moktada denounced the [November] Falluja offensive, and Sistani did not--or did, very mildly, and too late. Armchair planners dreaming of Balkanization tend to forget that Iraqi nationalism is much more powerful than a sectarian Sunni-Shiite division."

No doubt many Shiites will participate in the January 30 elections in the belief that the United Iraqi Alliance--the coalition of parties endorsed by Sistanti--can become the driving force behind a new government. But this will open up political divisions within the Shia population over the question of pressing for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

The United Iraqi Alliance initially included a call for a withdrawal timetable in its draft platform, but that proposal has now been watered down. The alliance now calls "for building Iraqi capabilities to achieve 'security independence,'" the Financial Times reported.

In other words, Sistani and the United Iraqi Alliance are moving toward the conclusion that they will have to rely on the U.S. while they build an Iraqi security force. That won't satisfy Shiites who hate the occupation--and who look to Sadr's lead in opposing the U.S.

How all this will develop in the months following the election is impossible to predict.

But one conclusion is obvious now for the antiwar movement--that no one should oppose immediate withdrawal because U.S. forces are needed to stop a civil war. In fact, the U.S. is fanning the flames, not putting them out. The antiwar movement needs to support the Iraqi struggle to free itself of this domination.

Washington uses the Kurds as pawns

LEADERS OF Iraq's Kurdish minority are also hoping to bolster their power coming out of the January 30 elections.

In the three predominantly Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq, voters will also cast ballots for a Kurdish assembly in addition to the national body elected from all 18 provinces.The Kurdish-dominated parts of Iraq are already semi-autonomous.

The rival Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will run against one another, but together, they plan to increase the power of their enclave in post-invasion Iraq.

In the city of Kirkuk, Kurdish leaders recently got an agreement to allow 100,000 Kurds--said to have been expelled from the city under Saddam Hussein's regime--to vote in the election. "This agreement would change the demographic balance and risks the eruption of tensions in the ethnically divided and volatile city," wrote K. Gajendra Singh in Asia Times.

What's more, Kirkuk--like most of the rest of the Kurdish-controlled north--lies on top of some of the country's richest oil reserves, raising the stakes in the scramble over who will control these areas.

Far more than Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the Kurds have collaborated with the U.S. invasion and occupation--as they did during the 1991 Gulf War and the years that followed--in the belief that this would bring them closer to an independent Kurdish state.

In reality, this relationship with the U.S.--in which Washington has repeatedly used the Kurds as pawns in the pursuit of its own interests--has set back the struggle against national oppression.

Within Iraq, the Kurds make up about 20 percent of the population. Spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, they are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state.

For decades, the U.S. made false promises to the Kurds when it suited U.S. interests--only to betray them. For example, the U.S. urged a Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War--and then gave tacit approval to Saddam's merciless repression of the Kurds when they did rebel.

The U.S. has also continually placed its strategic relationship with Turkey--which is intent on denying an independent Kurdish state even in northern Iraq for fear that it would encourage demands for autonomy among Kurds living in southern Turkey--ahead of the interests of the Kurds.

By helping to tighten the grip of U.S. imperialism on the region, the Kurds have only pushed back their own struggle.

Who's who in the election

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is one of Shiite Islam's most revered clerics. Though he's not running in the election, his tacit backing of the United Iraqi Alliance--a union of the two Shiite religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party--virtually assures that it will get the largest vote in the upcoming election.

Sistani was largely responsible for pushing the U.S. to hold elections earlier rather than later.

Moktada al-Sadr is a young, more militant cleric whose followers, organized in the Mahdi Army, took on the U.S. in Najaf last year.

Sadr's main base of support lies in the impoverished neighborhood of Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad. Sadr City is after his father, an influential Shiite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein loyalists in 1999.

Sadr had planned to trade in his armed resistance for electoral influence, but after he was excluded from United Iraqi Alliance election list, he has come out strongly against the elections, calling for a boycott. "If you participate in [the elections], you find that you have been caught in their game in such a way that you cannot escape," he said in early January. This has enhanced his already significant following among Sunni Muslims.

Iyad Allawi is currently Iraq's interim prime minister. His party, the secular Iraqi National Accord, is likely to get the second-highest vote total. Though it is predominantly Shiite, it includes Sunni candidates as well.

Allawi's unswerving support for the U.S. has made him highly unpopular in Iraq, but his party has a high profile and will attract support from Iraqis who think that his iron-fisted approach will tame the chaos brought on by the U.S. occupation.

In the early 1990s, Allawi was on the CIA payroll. He helped to coordinate terrorist car bombings in Baghdad aimed at destabilizing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime favorite of Bush administration neoconservatives, wormed his Iraqi National Congress onto the United Iraqi Alliance election list.

Throughout the 1990s, he lived in exile, seeking U.S. military support to carry out a coup against Saddam Hussein. Then, after the post-invasion search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction revealed that there weren't any, the U.S. pinned all the blame on Chalabi for providing false intelligence, and he fell out of favor with Washington. Now he is trying to remake himself as a Shiite politician.

On the eve of the elections, the Iraqi defense minister in Allawi's government threatened to have Chalabi arrested and sent to Lebanon, where he was convicted in absentia of bank fraud, and faces a 17-year prison sentence.

John Negroponte is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

It is fitting that Negroponte is in Iraq as Pentagon officials debate whether to employ the so-called "Salvador option"--modeled on Washington's strategy in its 1980s war against left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador, in which the U.S. trained and funded death squads to track down and assassinate rebel leaders.

At the time, Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to Honduras. He played a central role in directing Ronald Reagan's dirty wars in Central America.

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