Iraq: a peculiar peace

Post-election Iraq is neither a 'new democracy' nor an Islamic state in waiting, but a nation pacified by stasis.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Judging by the American and British response to the Iraqi election results, this is either a new ‘dawn of democracy’ for the beleaguered nation or the start of something terrible: a civil war perhaps, or the birth of a nuke-hungry Islamic state built along the same lines as neighbouring Iran. Or, some argue, it might be both, starting off democratic but descending into despotism before long.

These two seemingly contradictory reactions to the results – where coalition officials congratulate themselves for apparently bringing democracy to Iraq, while elsewhere their supporters entertain overblown fears about everything falling apart – capture the coalition’s schizophrenic relationship with postwar Iraq.

In one breath, officials still seek to make a bit of moral mileage out of Iraq, hoping that the emergence of some kind of political system there will reflect well on them. So President George W Bush declares that, ‘The United States and our coalition partners can all take pride in our role in making this great day possible’ (1). In the next breath, they worry about What Will Happen Next. From American and British intelligence circles to establishment journals like The Economist and Time, there has been widespread fretting over the potential impact of the election, and whether it will give rise to a Shia Islamic dictatorship or to deadly clashes between Shias and Sunnis.

These reactions highlight a problem for the coalition. Its Iraqi venture, from shock’n’awe in 2003 to the election results in 2005, was an attempt to boost the moral authority of the US and UK governments. Yet now it is left with a vacuum in Iraq, where coalition officials and their supporters only seem to see disaster looming.

There was a 58 per cent turnout in the elections, held on 30 January. There was a larger turnout among Iraq’s majority Shia population, as high as 95 per cent in some parts of the Shia south, than among the minority Sunni population, many of whom boycotted the election. The former Saddam regime was largely Sunni, and much of the insurgency has its origins in disgruntled Sunni areas of Iraq, around Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. In some Sunni areas, turnout was as low as two per cent. The United Iraqi Alliance, a Shia grouping headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, won 48 per cent of the vote; Kurdish parties in the north secured 26 per cent, and former interim prime minister and US ally Ayad Allawi came in at just under 14 per cent, seen by many as a snub to his interim body that governed Iraq for much of the past year.

Some have interpreted the results as an expression of ‘hostility to the US occupation’. With a huge vote for Sistani, who has links with Iran, America’s latest bête noire, and a paltry vote for Allawi, one left-leaning website declared that, ‘Far from being a vindication of the US-led invasion, the outcome has confirmed that most Iraqis do not believe that American soldiers are bringing “peace” and “democracy” to the country’ (2). This may be true, but for the coalition the most important thing seems to be that the election took place at all: officials seemed less interested in who won, than in presenting the occurrence of the election as a good in itself, as the latest stage in Iraq growing up and being able to take over responsibility from America and Britain.

Some Bushies talked about the Iraqi election as if the result – or more accurately just the fact that there was a result – was as important for them as it was for finding out who would take the 250 seats in the new Baghdad-based Transitional Assembly. As the election results were announced, one Republican Senator told an audience that ‘we have just come through a tough election’, and assured them that ‘we won’. President Bush has previously congratulated not only the people of Iraq, but also ‘our military and our diplomats’, ‘our coalition partners’ and the ‘people of the United States’ for being ‘patient and resolute, even in difficult days…’ (3).

It seems that some in the Bush administration look upon the Iraqi election as a kind of sequel to the US presidential elections in November last year: where the presidential elections gave them the numbers they needed to get back into office, the Iraqi election, it was hoped, would confer some moral authority, and provide a boost to their sense of legitimacy both at home and abroad. So some Bush officials talked about ‘winning’ the Iraqi election as much as they did the presidential election.

Yet this attempt to present the election as a good brought about with a little help from the coalition is continually tempered by the coalition’s own concerns. Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic have raised the alarm about the Shias’ close ties to Iran, and Sistani’s apparent desire to ‘Islamicise Iraq’ in order to keep his contacts and funders in Iran happy. One former US ambassador raised the possibility that even agreeing on a basic political future might prove deadly. ‘Writing a constitution may tear the country apart’, he argued (4).

Others pointed to the divisions expressed in the election results, and the potential for such divisions to become live civil clashes. As one writer pointed out: ‘Eighty per cent of Iraqis voted for parties that represented their own ethnic or religious group, including Christian and Turkmen parties. And Sunni Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population, expressed their own identity by not voting at all.’ (5)

It is true that the Shias are now the dominant force in Iraq and that Iraqis voted along divisive ethnic lines. Yet these are largely default positions, if you like; they are less expressions of new clashing interests or tensions than a consequence of there being nothing else in postwar Iraq. Iraq 2005 is not Iran 1979; the Shia clerics are in the ascendant more by default than as a result of any burgeoning Islamic revolution. Over the past 18 months, Shia leaders have moved into the vacuum left by the coalition’s war. Having removed the Ba’ath Party, which dominated every aspect of Iraqi politics and society, the invasion left the mosques as the only remaining institutions with any connection to, or legitimacy among, ordinary Iraqis. It is this that elevated the Shias, rather than any kind of replay of what happened in Iran 25 years ago. Indeed, Iraqi Shias, since winning the election, have played up their desire to celebrate Iraq’s ‘diversity’, insisting that, ‘We are not calling for a theocratic government because we have such pluralism’ (6).

Likewise, Iraqis voted along ethnic lines because there was little else to vote for. The Ba’athists were the dominant political force in Iraq, ruling over the state’s disparate ethnic communities often with brute force. Today, with no unifying or political force, whether of the ruthless Saddam variety or any other, Iraqis have fallen back on to ethnic associations, one of the few things left by a war that removed the ruling regime and replaced it with nothing. That these default positions are seen by some as spectres of doom reveals more about the state of mind of the coalition than it does about the state of affairs in Iraq.

Post-election Iraq is not the new democracy celebrated by coalition officials or an Islamic Republic waiting to happen; rather it is in a state of stasis, where a strange kind of peace reigns in the absence of any serious political interests being expressed or fought over. There is no clear programme on any side: the coalition seems to want as little involvement as possible in Iraq’s new political framework, while the Shias emphasise their openness. Even some Sunni leaders now reportedly regret their decision to boycott the election and have asked to be ‘included’ in the new assembly in some way (7).

Postwar Iraq seems to just potter along. Indeed, even the ‘opposition’ to the new Iraq seems specifically designed to kick against this stasis. The faceless insurgent groups that detonate suicide bombs don’t have any demands; rather, they seem to want to jolt Iraq out of its current haze and simply make something, anything, happen. After each bomb, however, the dust settles and Iraq settles back into its peculiar state.

This is a state that the coalition can live with, and even celebrate as some kind of victory. But it also means that events in Iraq remain arbitrary and unpredictable – and deeply unsatisfactory for those Iraqis who thought voting in an election was a step to regaining control of their destiny.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Bush congratulates Iraq elected officials, CNN, 14 February 2005

(2) Iraqi election results reflect broad hostility to US occupation, World Socialist Web Site, 16 February 2005

(3) President congratulates Iraqis on elections, White House, 30 January 2005

(4) Iraq’s greatest challenge, The Standard, China, 17 February 2005

(5) Iraq’s greatest challenge, The Standard, China, 17 February 2005

(6) Iraqi election catapults critic of US to power, Los Angeles Times, 14 February 2005

(7) Experts urge that Sunnis be included, Associated Press, 14 February 2005

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Topics Politics


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