A critical phase in Iraq

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The Bush administration's game plan of indirect occupation of Iraq faces a serious challenge, with the Shia population preparing to raise the banner of revolt over the issue of elections.

THE new year has not brought good tidings for the occupation forces in Iraq, as the scale of violence by resistance forces has shown no signs of diminishing. The toll of American soldiers so far has reached the 500 figure after three United States soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb blast near Baghdad on January 17. Since October 25, 2003, the resistance forces have shot down nine U.S. military helicopters. More important, there are ominous signs that the Shia population is preparing to raise the banner of revolt over the issue of elections.

A suicide bomber detonated a tonne of explosives outside the headquarters of the occupation forces in Baghdad on January 18 as the U.S. administrator was about to begin talks with United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan in New York about the possibility of getting the U.N. involved in Iraq once again. The explosion, the deadliest one in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein, claimed 18 lives and left scores of people injured. Among those killed were two U.S. contractors.

In the second week of January, a bomb exploded outside a Shia mosque in Baghdad, killing five worshippers. This is seen as a clear attempt to widen further the existing chasm between the Shia and the Sunni populations. Northern Iraq is on the boil following tensions between Arabs and Kurds. The Kurdish leadership has started talking of an "autonomous" Kurdistan and laid claims to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Clashes between the Kurds on the one side and Arabs and Turks on the other have occurred in many cities in the north. The Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere are preparing to form their own militia to counter-balance the "Mahdi Army" of the Shiite cleric, Sheikh Muktada al-Sadr.

It is in this volatile atmosphere that the Bush administration wants to hand over power to a handpicked civilian administration in Iraq. With the presidential elections in the U.S. looming, Bush apparently wants to claim to have introduced democracy in Iraq and withdrawn the U.S. military from the urban and populated areas of the country. There is no longer any talk of searching for weapons of mass destruction. The Saddam-Al Qaeda link, another rationale for launching the war on Iraq, has been rubbished universally. The U.S. media have reported that even when Saddam Hussein was in hiding he had warned his close associates to distance themselves from jehadi terrorist groupings. All this, however, did not prevent President George W. Bush from claiming in his State of the Union address that the removal of Saddam Hussein (from power in Iraq) had made the world a much safer place now.

The January 11 statement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, acknowledged as the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, that direct elections should be held in Iraq has further queered the pitch for the Bush administration. The Ayatollah had issued an edict (fatwa) in June last year calling on Iraqis to launch a struggle for fair and free elections. The Bush administration at that time was thinking of rustling up a Constitution for Iraq with the help of the puppet Interim Council. Sistani emphasised that only democratically elected representatives could draft a Constitution for Iraq.

In November, Sistani said that he would reconsider his demand for immediate direct elections if a U.N. delegation was able to conclude that the conditions in Iraq were not conducive to such an exercise. The Bush administration has maintained that no census had been conducted in Iraq for years for the preparation of a voters list for such an exercise. Most Iraqis, however, are of the opinion that the U.N. records for the disbursement of rations during the U.S.-inspired and U.N.-sanctioned economic blockade of Iraq could provide the basis for a reliable voters list. Another important reason for the U.S.' rejection of the demand for elections is the outcome of an opinion poll conducted last year, which found that 56 per cent of Iraqis wanted the creation of an Islamic republic.

Sistani was more forthright in his statement. The spiritual leader said that elections could be held "within the next few months with an acceptable level of transparency and credibility". An unelected and undemocratic government did not have the right to ask the U.S. to stay on in Iraq, he said. (Sistani has refused to grant an audience to Paul Bremer, the U.S. chief administrator in Iraq, despite repeated requests.)

The Bush administration's current plan is to hold "elections" in Iraq through "caucuses". Unlike the caucuses in the U.S. State of Iowa for the Democratic Party's primaries, which were elected, the Bush administration was planning to invite "notables" from every province of Iraq to attend the so-called caucuses. The Shiites see it as a crude attempt to deny them democracy. The U.S. wants a friendly regime, which would give it unfettered strategic and security access, installed in Iraq. The goals of a popularly elected government headed by the Shia clergy, on the other hand, would be incompatible with the U.S. game plan for the region.

The Shiites, comprising more than 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, will sweep to power whenever elections are held. But the Bush administration would prefer an election of the "Afghan" kind, through which it can impose its own hand-picked regime. However, according to observers, the unity of the Shias cannot be broken so easily. The Shia leadership is aware that the long-term plan of the U.S. is to divide and rule. The U.S. has winked at the Kurds' moves to grab power in northern Iraq. There is no indication that the Sunni triangle in central Iraq will ever be pacified by the U.S. forces, despite U.S. efforts to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and Ba'athists.

The massive demonstrations in Basra and Baghdad against the U.S. in late January are indications that Ayatollah Sistani's challenge could be the most serious the U.S. has encountered so far since the occupation began. It was the Shia acquiescence that enabled the militarily weaker members of the coalition forces such as the British, the Spanish and the Dutch to have a peaceful time in southern Iraq. Japan has sent its troops to southern Iraq, first time its troops are in a war zone since the Second World War. Washington had the luxury of concentrating on central Iraq to deal with the insurgency there.

If the popular demands for fair elections are not accepted, Basra and the rest of the south could turn out to be bigger killing fields for the coalition forces than the Sunni triangle. The unemployment rate in Basra hovers around 70 per cent. There was a confrontation between British troops and demonstrators in Basra in mid-January. The protesters were demanding employment. Five demonstrators were killed when the British and Iraqi police opened fire. Shia resistance is not expected to remain non-violent for long. One of Sistani's deputies, Abdel-Mahdi Salami, warned of a "possible confrontation with the occupying forces" if peaceful protests and strikes failed to achieve their purpose.

THE Bush administration is leaning heavily on Kofi Annan to help it continue its indirect occupation of Iraq, after going through the formal motions of handing over power in June. A former U.N. official, Dennis Halliday, said that the U.N. would be making a "terrible mistake" if it returned to an occupied country. Halliday, a former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, told an Arab news agency in Cairo that such a move would "give legal respectability to the invasion and occupation" of the country and further "promote the impression that it has collaborated against the Iraqi people". Halliday had quit his U.N. job after witnessing firsthand the sufferings of ordinary Iraqis caused by the economic sanctions.

Halliday said that the Iraqis no longer considered the U.N. a friendly organisation because they had suffered for years under the "illegal and immoral concept of sanctions". The U.N., he added, had allowed the occupation of an independent, sovereign country. Many Iraqis believe that Kofi Annan has not been sufficiently critical of the U.S. and British actions in Iraq.

Annan has not ruled out the return of U.N. officials to Iraq but has admitted that the situation remained too dangerous for an early return of the U.N. staff. The explosion in front of the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad was no doubt intended as a signal to the U.N. to stay away from Baghdad. The Bush administration's decision to approach the U.N. at this juncture is interpreted as another sign of its inability to control the pace of events in Iraq. Before the invasion, senior Bush administration officials had questioned the relevance of the U.N. Until last November, the U.S. had not envisaged any role for the U.N. in Iraq's transition to "democracy".

The Americans have suffered the most number of casualties in Iraq. Body bags coming home almost on a daily basis is not politically or militarily acceptable to the Bush administration as it gears up for the presidential election. If the Shias too rise militarily, the game could be virtually over for the U.S. in Iraq. The Shia leadership has conveyed to the Bush administration in clear terms that it will stop its tacit cooperation with the occupation forces if elections are not conducted. This will be bad news for Bush in an election year.

From available indications, even the U.N. will not be able to bail out the Bush administration from the quagmire it finds itself in.

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