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WHAT WE THINK
Washington wants the Iraq election to legitimize occupation
Manufacturing "democracy"

February 11, 2005 | Page 3

THE NEW York Times reported that the U.S. government was touting the elections as a success. "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout," read the Times story, despite a "terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting."

Those words could have come from any Times article about Iraq's elections on January 30. In fact, they were written in 1967, after a presidential vote in South Vietnam, where the U.S. was at war against the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam.

Within a few months of this "heartening" turnout, the NLF had launched its Tet Offensive--a coordinated assault by resistance forces on more than 100 cities across South Vietnam. The Vietnam War dragged on until 1975, but Tet was the turning point in proving that Washington's puppet regime was widely hated--and that U.S. forces were in the process of being kicked out of Vietnam.

Iraq's elections today should be seen in the same light.

The U.S. media universally accepted the Bush administration's verdict--pronounced early in the day on January 30 to control the message--that the vote was a sign of progress, bringing the country closer to stability and "self-rule." The hype continued after the vote, culminating in Bush's State of the Union Address before Congress--where he was greeted by lawmakers holding up fingers darkened with ink, to symbolize voters in Iraq whose fingers were marked after they cast a ballot.

The most widely captured moment of the carefully stage-managed speech was when two women invited to sit next to Laura Bush--the mother of a GI killed in Iraq, and an Iraqi woman who had voted four days earlier--embraced.

The media were so disinterested in uncovering anything critical of Bush that it was left to a liberal Web log called the Daily Kos to reveal a few pertinent facts about the Iraqi woman.

Safia Taleb Al-Souhail hadn't set foot in Iraq since 1968 until she returned after the U.S. invasion for a political conference "facilitated by the Coalition Provisional Authority." Her friends in high places also set her apart from most Iraqis. In 2003, she wrote an article for the Washington think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, whose board members and advisers include Washington hawks and hacks like Steve Forbes, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Newt Gingrich, Gary Bauer, Zell Miller, Donna Brazille and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The media endlessly recycled the same pictures and video footage of celebrating Iraqis standing in line to vote--at one of a handful of pre-selected polling stations, it later turned out. But very few commentators looked at the reality behind the imagery.

For three days surrounding the vote, the country was under a "a complete lockdown... including shoot-to-kill curfews in many areas, closure of the airport and borders, and closure of roads," wrote Phyllis Bennis, of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies.

After initially estimating turnout at 72 percent--a figure apparently snatched out of thin air, but nevertheless reported uncritically around the world--the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (a body established by the U.S.) later claimed that 57 percent of "eligible voters" had cast ballots. One week later, there was still no confirmation of this national estimate. What was known was how low the turnout was in Sunni Muslim areas--for example, 1,400 ballots cast in Samarra, a city of some 200,000 people.

Despite claims that the armed resistance was marginalized on Election Day, the Chicago Tribune reported that some 260 insurgent attacks took place, the highest single-day number since the beginning of the occupation.

And only after the election did it become clear how hamstrung the new "elected" government of Iraq will be.

"The Transitional Administrative Law, imposed by the U.S. occupation, remains the law of the land even with the new election," Bennis wrote. "Amending that law requires super-majorities of the [new Transitional National Assembly], as well as a unanimous agreement by the presidency council, almost impossible given the range of constituencies that must be satisfied. Chiefs of key control commissions, including Iraq's Inspector General, the Commission on Public Integrity, the Communication and Media Commission and others, were appointed by [U.S. occupation overseer L. Paul Bremer] with five-year terms, can only be dismissed 'for cause.' The Council of Judges, as well as individual judges and prosecutors, were selected, vetted and trained by the U.S. occupation, and are dominated by long-time U.S.-backed exiles."

The U.S. initially didn't want these elections to take place, but was forced to concede under pressure from leaders of Iraq's Shia majority, who hoped that a vote would advance their interests in post-invasion Iraq. But in agreeing to the election plan, the U.S. made sure little was at stake.

Some on the left--for example, the French socialist Gilbert Achcar--have mistaken initial hesitation on the part of the U.S. as evidence that the elections could be the genuine expression of Iraqi aspirations--at the least, aspirations of the long-oppressed Shia population. This view misses the full picture.

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA)--a coalition of Shiite parties and politicians endorsed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq--is expected to win the largest number of seats in the new assembly.

Before the vote, leading figures in the UIA insisted that the election would begin the process of getting the U.S. out of Iraq. But behind the scenes, UIA leaders were moving toward a position of coexistence with the occupation. As Ibrahim Jaafari, a leader of the Hezb al-Dawa al-Islamiya party, which was part of the UIA, said: "If the U.S. pulls out too fast, there would be chaos."

The masses of Shiites who supported the UIA on Election Day didn't cast a ballot for continued U.S. occupation--on the contrary, Shiites hate the U.S. presence as much as Sunnis.

If the UIA does come to represent the face of the new government, this will expose conflicts among Shiites--between the majority who want the U.S. out, and moderate leaders who are for compromise. The militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a boycott of the January 30 election and says he will oppose further concessions to the occupation. "The Iraqi people want a pullout timetable, security, job opportunities and social services," said Sheikh Hassan al-Zarqani, Sadr's press spokesperson. "We will obey the new elected government if it serves the best interests of the Iraqi people. If not, we will be its arch enemies."

No one who opposes the U.S. war on the Iraqi people should accept Iraq's elections as legitimate. They are another chapter in Washington's long history "of using elections held under conditions of war and occupation to legitimize its illegal wars," as Phyllis Bennis wrote. Ending the occupation--and bringing all U.S. troops home now--is the precondition for Iraqis being able to determine their own future.

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