Seen the day after more than 100,000 rallied in Washington against the Iraq war, the slogan on the counter-protestor’s sign was breath-catching: “Keep the Promise to Iraq.” Another banner read: “God bless our Soldiers Liberating the World One Tyrant at a Time.”
Indeed, a liberated Iraq was the promise the White House made repeatedly in the months, days, even hours before the full weight of the March 19, 2003 U.S.-led attack was unleashed. Moreover, on the very night the opening salvos struck Baghdad, President Bush told the U.S. public, Iraqis, and the rest of the world that the intent of the military attack was to “help Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country…and restore control of that country to its own people.”
By any reasonable standard of interpretation, a U.S. president was promising the Iraqi people participation in a post-war effort to build a functioning democratic governance structure. Yet in April 2003, just after Bush declared major combat in Iraq had ended, two meetings of 43 and 250 Iraqi “leaders” chosen by the U.S. were held “to advance the national dialogue among Iraqis regarding composition of an Iraqi interim authority.” The effort fell flat, largely because Iraqis had no say in which tribes and geographical areas would be represented and which would not. (There are 2,500 tribes and sub-tribes in Iraq.)
When Iraqis were given limited sovereignty on June 28, 2004, the basis on which the interim government functioned (to the extent it did) was the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) promulgated by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. viceroy who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority. The subsequent “election” of the constituent assembly in January 2005, the coming (October 15) referendum on the constitution, and the election of a “permanent” government in December are all tied to a timetable in the TAL – and are therefore seen as fundamentally illegitimate by a large number of Iraqis.
The White House hails the “constitutional process” that has replaced Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Iraqis laugh derisively or are angry when anyone speaks of elections and the constitution. A number of women’s organizations oppose the constitution because it links elemental personal and familial rights to an interpretation of Islam that places strict limits on women’s rights.
All references to international human rights covenants as guaranteeing women’s status and minority rights are missing from the latest public draft. This is no accident; paragraph 44 of an earlier draft stated that “all individuals shall have the right to enjoy all the rights mentioned in the international treaties and agreements concerning human rights that Iraq has ratified, and do not contradict with the principles and provisions of this constitution.” Efforts to re-instate this provision have so far failed. (The new paragraph 44 reads: “Restricting or limiting any of the freedoms and liberties stated in this constitution may only happen by, or according to, law and as long as this restriction or limitation does not undermine the essence of the right or freedom.”)
One Iraqi summed up the changes this way: “The constitution weakens the state and strengthens religion within the government.”
On the other hand, Iraqis in the southern part of the country near Iran are not laughing – even derisively. The dominant political and religious leadership is seen to be under the influence of if not beholden to Iran. Many people see the drive for a geographically-based tripartite federal system that includes a Shi’ite southern “super-region” as a ploy to increase ties with Iran. Meanwhile, in the Kurdish-controlled north, minorities and Arabs who came to the area under Saddam’s prodding are being forced from their homes and means of livelihood.
Of course, under Saddam, there was no dissent. Today there is a cacophony of voices and views. Unfortunately, there is little communication going on because no one is listening – whether it be would-be rulers to the Iraqi public or religious, ethnic and tribal factions to each other. This leaves power in the grasp of political-militia organizations that are inclined to let the bullet, not the ballot, speak for them. And not far down this road lies civil war – with more and more observers, in and outside Iraq, expressing fear that such a war has already started.
If “wishing made it so,” after nearly 30 months since Saddam’s regime crumbled, Iraq would be a model democracy. Instead,
– armed attacks of all kinds – small arms, mortar and artillery, and improvised explosive devices – have been increasing steadily during the past four months and now are approaching 100 per day. One Iraqi, remarking on the lack of security, said: “Everything is bad – explosions, kidnappings, no power, no water…no air.”
– Iraq is “a” if not “the” premier world center for recruiting, indoctrinating, training, and using suicide bombers. Car bombings have become daily occurrences and are the chief cause of fatalities among Iraqis. The U.S. military command in Iraq even reported that Marines had only just thwarted a suicide car bomber who had penetrated the heavily fortified “Green Zone” that is home to the U.S. embassy and the transitional government. (This report was subsequently withdrawn. And although “first reports” invariably are wrong, they – and therefore this one – equally invariably have some basis.)
– the capitol city never has electricity for more than a third of the day while piles of trash never disappear. Gasoline is now rationed, but the food ration exists on paper only.
– officials are gunned down and ordinary Iraqis are kidnapped in broad daylight; armed robberies are common. There is no safety in the country.
– women who would dress in western styles before March 2003 now wear the hiljab.
– intellectuals are leaving the country; jobs are few, especially for those graduating from college who then can become radicalized.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad insists that Washington is and will not interfere in Iraq’s affairs. Yet the U.S. maintains 138,000 troops in country to patrol, raid, arrest, and maintain a high profile throughout the country, especially in urban areas. In a protest of the continuing U.S. military presence, scale of operations, and unaccountability to a “sovereign” Iraq, in June one-third of the 275-member national assembly signed a demand that Washington set a troop withdrawal timeline. This was followed on September 13 by a very sharply worded four-page report from the assembly’s National Sovereignty Committee. The report, in noting that Iraq can never be truly sovereign until all coalition forces leave, called for a timetable for the departure of the occupation forces, a phrase not previously used in an Iraqi government document.
Both the June and September actions are, of course, symbolic and will be nothing more as long as the occupation forces remain. Washington, however, may have miscalculated in its choice of Iraqi elites and the extent of their tolerance of armed foreigners, whether coalition troops or al-Zarqawi’s insurgents.
Moreover, as demonstrated in the national assembly election in January, among the large number of Iraqis who cannot read, symbols – positive or negative – continue to embody unanticipated power when they tap into cultural and historical wellsprings. Predicting what these wellsprings are and how they might manifest themselves is only slightly less futile than efforts to suppress or control them. History is replete with instances where, having “destroyed” the old symbols and believing its ways to be ascendant, an invader has failed to sense the phoenix-like emergence of “new” indigenous symbols – and in so doing brought about its on humiliating defeat.
The outcome in Iraq hangs in the balance. U.S. officials point to the targeting of civilians – mainly Shi’ites – by insurgents as a sign of desperation among the armed resistance. What they overlook is that al-Zarqawi and the indigenous fighters do not need and are not trying to “win hearts and minds” of the people, as a democracy must. Left to themselves – that is, all foreign troops gone – their views of Islam in the caliphate would probably find little symbolic resonance because it would be historically bounded.
Conversely, among ordinary Iraqis, who today expect everything to get worse and who see no point in the continued presence of occupation troops, the planned, publicly announced withdrawal schedule would infuse hope – and therefore power – even where there seems to be no hope or reason to hope today.
Col. DAN SMITH can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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