Letter from Beirut

Polling in the time of bombs

Print edition : May 16, 2014

The site of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad's Habibiya district in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood on April 17, where at least eight people were killed. Photo: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Photo: REUTERS

Khair el-Din Haseeb. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Haifa Zangana. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nothing will stop the Iraqi elections from going ahead on April 30, in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition seems assured of victory.

Bulletins of bomb blasts from Iraq have taken on the stature of weather reports—one sees them, acknowledges them, and then turns away. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) counts the casualty numbers as part of its mandate. In March, UNAMI reported that 592 Iraqis died and another 1,234 Iraqis were injured in the country’s non-stop violence. The most violent month was last May when the death count was 963 with 2,191 wounded. In 2013, Iraq lost 7,818 people to car bombs and gunfire. “This is a sad and terrible record which confirms once again the urgent need for the Iraqi authorities to address the roots of violence to curb the infernal circle,” said Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s Special Representative for Iraq. As two of the branches of Al Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) fight in Iraq’s Anbar province, the death toll increases. Eleven persons die on one day, 20 on another. Car bombs tear through Baghdad; gunfire rattles Ramadi.

Nothing will stop the Iraqi elections from going ahead on April 30. Frustrated by what they considered political interference and the daily perils of violence, officials of the High Electoral Commission decided to resign en masse. Within 10 days, the officials returned to work after the government and the judiciary gave them assurances of various kinds. It is unlikely that these guarantees can be honoured. Iraq is in a perilous state, as it has been for a very long time.

Walls and pillars across Iraq are plastered with campaign posters. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition seems assured of victory. A confident al-Maliki has thrown relatively unknown people and political defectors (including Alia Nassif of Iraqiya) onto his electoral list. Informed observers in Baghdad say that this will allow al-Maliki to control the newly elected lawmakers. It is a sign of his authority rather than his weakness.

A possible fleeting sense that the electorate might abandon his list has sent al-Maliki to seek emergency powers through a Bill sent to Parliament on April 4. That the generally enfeebled lawmakers did not accept the Bill says a great deal about their courage. Newspapers affiliated with al-Maliki’s party, such as Almasalah and Darbonh, smeared the reputation of well-regarded secular politicians such as Mithal al-Alusi and Hanaa Edwar, as the cleric Kadhem al-Haeri—close to al-Maliki—issued a fatwa on March 30 to caution against votes for secular candidates. A ghastly new personal status (Ja’fari) law was hastened to Parliament to appeal to the worst kind of misogyny. It would overturn Law No. 188 (1959), which gives Iraqi women the greatest institutional freedoms in the Arab world. “The corrupt ruling alliance is desperate to pass this law,” says Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana. “It is an election ploy. In the absence of any real political programme, the Ja’fari law becomes one of their main campaign issues.”

Opponents of al-Maliki, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Citizen Bloc, Saleh Muhamed al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Democratic Front, and Osama al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun bloc, flounder to make inroads into his virtual monopoly of power. They tried to deny him his third term as Prime Minister through a term limit law in January 2013. The judiciary overturned the opposition’s Bill eight months later, delivering al-Maliki the opportunity to run again.

Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc almost lost the 2010 parliamentary elections. The shock, writes Iraqi lawyer Zaid al-Ali in his new book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, drove al-Maliki and his allies into a deeply sectarian trench at the same time as his government began to fully control the military and security establishment. Al-Maliki argued that the Prime Minister should always be a Shia. His proxies suggested that despite blatant evidence of corruption and incompetence, at least al-Maliki and his allies “recognise that Ali is the Wali of God”, as Shiekh Salah al-Tufayli put it in 2012. Absent Sunni allies, al-Maliki could not be confident of victory. Propitiously, the insurgency of Al Qaeda groups in Anbar province has brought many Sunni notables to al-Maliki’s side. They fear the ISIS more than al-Maliki’s brand of sectarianism.

Sectarianism, says Khair el-Din Haseeb, is new to Iraq. It arrived full-blown through the political grammar enforced by the United States’ Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and was enshrined in the Constitution written for the Iraqis by the U.S. and its allies. “Not only did the American occupation change the regime,” says Haseeb, “it destroyed the Iraqi state itself.” The U.S. occupation and its Iraqi associates channelled reconstruction and oil contracts on the basis of sectarian affiliation and political loyalty (as indicated by a report from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in 2007 published by al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi). Haseeb calls the al-Maliki administration an “occupation government” because it is rooted in the Iraqi institutions set up during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Haseeb’s office, the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, is in Beirut, far from his native Iraq. He came to Beirut in 1974 after two and a half years in prison. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, threatened by the Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, accused Haseeb and others of being agents of Nasserism. Torture was routine in prison. Within months of Nasser’s death in September 1970, the government released Haseeb. He had been the head of the Central Bank of Iraq between 1963 and 1965 as well as a professor of economics at Baghdad University. Haseeb returned from prison to his teaching post. Three years later, in 1974, Saddam Hussein once more whiffed the air for threats. Haseeb’s friend in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised him to leave Iraq. He went to Lebanon, where after a stint at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, he co-founded the Centre for Arab Unity Studies.

A glance backward at Iraq’s history enlivens Haseeb, who points out that before the U.S. occupation—and despite its many problems—Iraq incubated an Arab nationalist project. Since its independence in 1920 until 2003, sectarianism was unknown to Iraqis, he notes. Of the Prime Ministers who governed the country in those 80 years, eight were Shia and four were Kurds, and of the 18 military chiefs four were Kurdish officers. The majority of the Baath members, he says, were Shia, not Sunni. On the 55 Most Wanted cards circulated by the Occupation, 35 people had Shia backgrounds. That heritage is now squandered.

Haseeb’s 1960 PhD produced an estimate for the national income of Iraq. These were the heyday of national development, when such a statistical series would be useful for economic planning. Haseeb went into the Central Bank and Oil Ministry to help develop this oil-rich country. “I convinced the government about adopting some socialist measures in Iraq,” he says with a smile. “That included nationalisation of private banks and insurance companies, as well as the main industries. We framed laws for the redistribution of wealth, including inheritance taxes.” The young nationalists pushed the Nasserite regime of Abd al-Karim Qassim to pass Law No. 80, which seized 99 per cent of the land held by the British-owned Iraqi Petroleum Company. It was in this complicated context of socialist policies and political suffocation that Iraq’s great poets—Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Kazim Jawad and others—found their voice.

Despite the coups and countercoups, Haseeb and his nationalist state-builders went ahead with their agenda. In 1967, they moved the government to pass Law No. 97 that brought the remainder of the oil lands under government control, and they fought to reorganise the National Oil Company, on whose board Haseeb had a seat. “We decided to exploit the Rumaila oilfield near Kuwait,” Haseeb recalls, “so we brought in Russian engineers to give us assistance.” On the other side, in the Central Bank, Haseeb and his colleagues decided to better manage Iraq’s vast silver reserves. “Pan-American Company wanted to come and mine Iraq’s silver,” he says, “but we refused. We insisted upon direct exploitation.” Once Iraq controlled its oil and silver, it was able to use those resources for national development. “Oil and silver were behind the 1968 coup,” Haseeb says. This was the coup that launched Saddam Hussein to power.

Saddam Hussein built on the foundation set up by Haseeb and his cohort. An industrial policy came alongside, and expanded health and education services. Haseeb went to jail, and then to exile. Nonetheless, from Beirut he watched with pride as UNESCO celebrated Iraq as the first developing country to eradicate illiteracy. A decade after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, UNESCO reports, illiteracy is up to 25 per cent (with some areas posting female illiteracy rates of 47 per cent). Haseeb was harshly tortured during his two and a half years in Saddam Hussein’s prisons. His noble bearing does not betray the scars he carries. How could someone with this history look so favourably at the record of the regime that put him in prison? Haseeb had opposed the 1990 attack on Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, the long sanctions regime of the 1990s and the 2003 attack by the U.S. So many men and women who had his experiences allowed their hatred of Saddam Hussein’s regime to cloud their political judgment. Haseeb and the writer Haifa Zangana stand apart.

I asked Haifa Zangana about her steadfastness to avoid the politics of hatred. Revenge, she said, was not a path to justice. She had experienced enough of torture and humiliation. Haifa Zangana, the author of City of Widows and Dreaming of Baghdad, powerful indictments against her imprisonment, reflects on the condition of jail and torture: “How can you talk about your humiliation, your weakness, letting yourself and others down, your reduction to an animal sleeping with urine and faeces? Can you explain how your mind loses its grip on nerves and muscles, how fear grows inside you like weed? Silence becomes your refuge while carrying your shame and guilt for being alive.” “I came out of prison believing that no one, no matter who, should be subjected to torture or be dehumanised,” she told me.

“Since I came to Lebanon in 1974,” Haseeb says, “I started psychological exercises to get rid of my ill-feeling I had towards those who tortured me. This enabled me to have a fresh look at people and judge them accordingly without reference to my own personal ill-feelings.” Thirty years after he had been released from prison, Haseeb heard from Saddam Hussein. U.S. President George W. Bush had begun to make noises about an attack on Iraq in 2002. In September, Haseeb flew to Baghdad and spent two and a half hours with Saddam Hussein, the man who had initiated his arrest and torture warrants. “I told him that I knew he was a nationalist with ambitions beyond Iraq. I convinced him that it is not enough to have oil and oil money. You cannot attract other Arab countries with oil since the Gulf Arabs already do so. You can only attract them if you have a democratic model. I think that he was convinced.”

Saddam Hussein was on the verge of a presidential election in October. Haseeb advised him to declare a general pardon of prisoners, which he did. He also asked him to announce a new democratic programme before the election. Saddam Hussein did not do this. “I was told that it was due to the advice of other members of the leadership, but also due to Saddam,” he said. Saddam Hussein believed “that he should not make concessions while he is weak”, Haseeb suggested. “This was wrong. What happened, happened.”

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