FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Victory for the Shia

Baghdad.

“What an extraordinary election, quite extraordinary,” said Adnan Pachachi, the elder statesman of Iraq and a man not easily impressed after seeing his country convulsed by war and dictatorship for half a century.

It is a strange affair. Not since the war which overthrew Saddam Hussein had there been such a gap between the reality of politics in Iraq and the picture presented by the US and British governments. The poll yesterday was portrayed as if Washington and London had finally been able to reach their goal of delivering democracy to Iraqis. In fact the US postponed elections to a distant future after the invasion of 2003.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein had been so swift that the American administration thought it could rule Iraq directly with little Iraqi involvement. But in the autumn of 2003 the US made two unpleasant discoveries: The guerrilla attacks in Sunni districts of Iraq were increasing by the day. They were supposedly confined to “the Sunni triangle”, a description with a comfortingly limited ring to it, but in reality an area larger than Britain.

The second development which Paul Bremer, the head of the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, was slow to understand, was that an elderly Shia cleric living in an alleyway home in the holy city of Najaf had more influence than any of the former Iraqi exiles on the US payroll. In June 2003, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiah leader, issued a fatwa or religious ruling saying that those who drew up Iraq’s constitution must be elected, not nominated by the US and the Iraqi Governing Council whose members Washington had appointed. In November 2003, he issued a further ruling saying that the transitional government must be elected.

Shia leaders believed they had made a grave mistake after Britain defeated the Turkish army and occupied what became Iraq in the First World War. The Shia revolted against the British occupation in 1920 so Britain turned to the Sunni community to rule Iraq and the Sunni kept their grip on power under the monarchy, the Republic and the dictator.

The reason there was a poll yesterday was that the US, facing an increasingly intensive war against the five million Sunni, dared not provoke revolt by the 15 to 16 million Shia. The price the US paid was to have an election in which the Shia would show that they are a majority of Iraqis.

But will the election yesterday involve a real transfer of power to the Shia? Last June, Iraqi sovereignty was supposedly transferred to the US-appointed interim government of Iyad Allawi. The change was largely a mirage. The government still depends for its existence on the presence of 150,000 US troops.

The wall-to-wall media coverage of the election yesterday obscured several of the realities of political life in Iraq. The National Assembly now being elected will have limited powers. It is constituted so no single community can dominate the others. But, as in Lebanon, this may be a recipe for paralysis. The assembly must elect a president and two vice-presidents and they will in turn chose a prime minister and ministers. The successful candidate will be the person with the fewest enemies.

The Shia were not going to the polling stations for the pleasure of risking mortars and suicide bombers. Their leaders have told them they will obtain real power for the first time.

Some US commentators have wondered if Washington might not be able to hold Iraq or at least remain in covert control by relying on the Kurds and the Shia. Together they make up 80 per cent of the population. This is known as ‘the 20 per cent solution” whereby the US will be able to deal with a rebellion supported by the Sunni Arabs, 20 per cent of the population.

This policy is based on a misconception. The Sunni are resisting the US occupation in arms. The Shia have not joined this rebellion, though Muqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army fought the US Marines for Najaf last August. A central feature of Iraqi politics is that since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US has become steadily more unpopular in Iraq outside Kurdistan. This is true among the Shia as well as the Sunni. An opinion poll by Zogby International shows that the Sunni Arabs who want the US out now or very soon total 82 per cent. The proportion of Shia wanting the US to go is less than the Sunni but still overwhelming at 69 per cent. Shia religious leaders have been telling their followers to vote as the quickest way to end the occupation.

The enthusiasm with which so many Shia went to the polls is a double-edged weapon. They did so in the belief that their ballots would translate into power.

In the immediate future, the election changes little in Iraq. The world is full of parliaments duly elected by a free ballot but power stays elsewhere, with the army, the security services or, in the case of Iraq today, an occupying foreign power.

 

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail