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WHAT WE THINK
U.S. officials celebrate Iraq's election under occupation
Nothing to do with democracy

February 4, 2005 | Page 3

THE BUSH administration wasted no time in declaring the Iraqi elections on January 30 a huge victory for democracy. "By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of terrorists," George Bush declared.

The administration's loyal supporters in the media tried to outdo one another with overblown historical comparisons. "[T]he people are trying to vote," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said on PBS's NewsHour. "It might not be what we like, but it is such a virtuous--it's like the civil rights movement and fighting the Nazis all wrapped up into one."

Make no mistake. The elections in Iraq had nothing to do with civil rights or defeating totalitarianism. They had nothing at all to do with democracy--and everything to do with Washington's quest for oil and empire in the Middle East.

The media ran hours of commentary from their talking heads, but almost none pointed out the absurdity of a "free" election taking place in a country in the iron grip of occupation. Washington showed what it really thinks of the "free" expression of opinions in Iraq when it sent a pre-election message to anyone who dared to resist its authority by flattening the city of Falluja in November.

U.S. troops were supposed to maintain "low visibility" on Election Day--except in areas where "violence" was expected--but Iraqis know very well the threat that their armed might represents. These are the real "foreign terrorists" in Iraq--not the U.S. media's fantasies of al-Qaeda members.

The deaths caused by U.S. forces, the humiliations of curfews and checkpoints, the deteriorating conditions and chaos of the occupation--this is the source of the resistance in Iraq, and it has been growing steadily since Bush declared victory in May 2003. The elections may have shifted attention elsewhere, but they didn't change this basic fact.

The big story for the U.S. media was the high voter turnout. That turned out to be exaggerated. Within a day of announcing that 72 percent of the country's 13 million registered voters had cast ballots, election officials revised the figure down to 60 percent. And who knows what the real numbers are--considering that the people in charge of the statistics are loyal first and foremost to Washington.

According to Patrick Cockburn of Britain's Independent, Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority mostly boycotted the vote. In fact, in many Sunni-dominated cities, only a portion of polling stations were even open for voting.

Among the Shiite Muslims and the Kurdish minority--who together make up 80 percent of the population--voter turnout was much higher. But this is because leaders of these two groups urged participation in the election.

Moderate Shiite leaders--including the influential cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani--pushed for the early elections against the initial opposition of the U.S. because they stand to gain the most from the vote.

The U.S. was forced to go along with Sistani's plan for the election--but it succeeded in shaping the process so that little would be decided. The votes cast Saturday will elect a Transitional National Assembly that is charged with writing a Constitution--and choosing a president and two vice presidents who will then select a prime minister and ministers. All of these steps have very flexible deadlines.

The U.S. gained the added bonus of fueling sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq--serving the time-honored colonial strategy of divide and rule.

If voter turnout was as high among Shiites as the initial reports indicate, U.S. officials will spin this as an endorsement of the U.S. presence in Iraq. That's a distortion of reality.

Some Shia leaders have been moving closer to accepting the U.S. presence. For example, the United Iraqi Alliance--the coalition of parties that Sistani endorsed--dropped a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from its platform during the campaign. But even moderate clerics and politicians recognize that they have to maintain public opposition to the U.S. presence, or risk losing support from ordinary Shia, who overwhelmingly want withdrawal.

As Robert Fisk of Britain's Independent newspaper explained the vote, "[The Shia] came to claim their rightful power in the land--that is why Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the grand marja of the Shias of Iraq, told them to vote--and woe betide the U.S. and British if they do not get it."

On the Democracy Now! radio program, Fisk pointed out, "What this election has done is not actually a demonstration of people who demand democracy, but they want freedom of a different kind--freedom to vote, but also freedom from foreign occupation. And if they are betrayed in this, then we are going to look back and regret the broken promises."

The January 30 election isn't a victory of democracy in Iraq any more than the U.S. military's staged toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad nearly two years ago. "An election will impress international opinion, but in the immediate future, it changes little in Iraq," wrote Patrick Cockburn. "The world is full of parliaments elected by a ballot, but with power staying with the army, security services or, as in the case of Iraq today, an occupying foreign power."

Iraqis will not gain democracy until the U.S. military has left Iraq. On this point, a growing number of Iraqis, of all backgrounds, agree. In fact, a recent Zogby poll showed that 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites favor U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

But the Bush administration doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. And they intend for the elections--and the new government the voting produces--to lend legitimacy to their occupation for oil and empire.

That's why we support a strong resistance to occupation to kick the U.S. out.

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