Turning the Corner in Iraq

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Turning the Corner in Iraq — Yet Again

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

For several months — actually, since the US invasion of Iraq — neoconservative propagandists have been trying to counter-spin the depressing reality in Mesopotamia that we’ve been watching on television by celebrating several "tipping points" that were supposed to mark the victory of freedom in Baghdad: The bringing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad; the capture of the Iraqi dictator (remember the intrusive examination of his mouth and beard?) and the killing of his sons; the "handover of sovereignty" to a provisional Iraqi government; the parliamentary election on Jan 30 and the voters happily waving their purple fingers; the recent adoption of an Iraqi constitution and the start of Saddam’s trial.

In a way, each image of a "turning point" should have affirmed the broader story of what American leaders promised would be a war of liberation to unseat a brutal dictator and free his imprisoned people, who would respond with gratitude and friendship, allowing American troops to return very quickly home (well, let’s forget about those missing weapons of mass-destruction).

But each time, the celebrated turning-the-corner image dissolved into thin air. As reality started biting, it became difficult to fit the "pseudo events" into the storyline promoted by the neocons.

But not to worry. We may be turning the corner in Iraq, once again. Indeed, the Bush administration’s spin-meisters are already marketing last week’s parliamentary election in Iraq — and in particular, the large turn out by the Arab-Sunnis — as another "defining moment" in Iraq’s march towards democracy and the spread of freedom all over the Middle East. They are promising us that in the aftermath of the election, a — Yes! Yes! Yes! — "tipping point" will be reached at any moment in Baghdad, and that it will mark the defeat of the anti-American insurgency and the triumph of American values and interests in Iraq.

US Parallel

In fact, US President George W Bush has suggested, in a speech that he made on the same day that the Iraqis went to the polls, that the problems Iraq is confronting today are comparable to the troubles the United States had while establishing its own constitutional government.

It’s not that Mr. Bush compared Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading figure behind the Shi’ite political renaissance in that country to American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. But in the address in Philadelphia, the historic birthplace of American democracy, Mr. Bush invoked the image of America’s own Founding Fathers in support of Iraq’s new political leaders, recalling that the US did not produce a constitution that could win ratification until years after the American Revolution and that the document itself did not solve all the new nation’s political problems.

The eight years from the end of the Revolutionary War to the election of a constitutional government were a time of disorder and upheaval. "Our founders faced many difficult challenges, they made mistakes, they learned from their experiences and they adjusted their approach," Mr. Bush said.

Unfortunately, the attempt by Mr. Bush and his aides to draw a historical analogy between the American Revolution and the current political turmoil and violence in Iraq is a misleading, if not contrived, exercise.

If I had the time, I could have written a book entitled One Thousand Reasons and One Reason why Iraq is Not the United States. But here is The One Reason: The American Revolution grew out of an authentic national struggle for independence against a foreign power and in support of political rights and was not a political process choreographed by an outside foreign power and conducted under occupation.

If anything, one can make the argument that the ousting of Saddam Hussein helped set in motion a civil war, the kind that the US ended up experiencing in 1861 with the start of the horrific war between the North and the South.

This time, Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims may or may not play the parts of America’s northerners and southerners (although it’s not clear how the Kurds fit into this historical analogy; the civil war in the former Yugoslavia seems more appropriate in this case).

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Mr. Bush and his aides have taken great care to emphasize that last week’s election demonstrated that Sunni participation in the Iraqi political process was growing, with Sunni coalitions running in Thursday’s election and millions of ordinary Sunnis seeing that their boycott of last January’s vote may have been counterproductive. If the January election proved to be a triumph, not of American-style liberty, but of the victory of Shi’ite identity and Kurdish nationalism over the Sunnis, the new election reflects the attempt by the Sunnis to add a political dimension to their effort to assert their power through the continuing violent insurgency. That is not very different from what the Shi’ites and the Kurds have been doing. They have gone to the polls to bring to power the representatives of their ethnic and religious groups, while at the same time members of their Shi’ite and Kurdish militias are gradually taking control of the "Iraqi" security forces which use violence to suppress the Sunni rebellion.

Side-effect

Moreover, one shouldn’t be surprised to hear one of Iran’s leading political figures and its former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, describe the parliamentary election in Iraq as a political victory for Iran.

Former CIA Middle East and terrorism analyst Larry Johnson expects that the Shi’ites would use the outcome of the election to consolidate their power in Baghdad, purge the defense ministry of Sunni influence, attack Sunni enclaves and strengthen ties with Iran. "The ultimate irony here is that we are enabling the Shi’ites, who are heavily backed by Iran, to consolidate their power in contrast to our policy of the previous 20 years, when we backed Saddam to contain the spread of the Islamic extremism supported and spread by Teheran," he said. "We are the midwife of a new Shi’ite state."

"If the bloodlust takes hold, we will just have to remind ourselves what a wonderful thing democracy is, particularly when a majority decides to act in what it perceives as its own best interest," Mr. Johnson added. "Power to the people."

In fact, we can already witness the effects of the American crusade for democracy in other parts of the Arab Middle East: In Egypt, the anti-Western (and non-democratic) Muslim Brotherhood have increased their presence in the Egyptian parliament following the recent elections there, while the radical anti-Israeli Hamas organization has won control of several major towns in the West Bank in the local elections there and is expected to win at least 40 per cent of the vote in the coming parliamentary vote.

At the same time, even Israeli officials, who are not great fans of Syrian President Bishar Assad, have warned the Americans that their drive towards "regime change" in Damascus could end up bringing to power radical anti-American (and anti-Israeli) Islamic groups.

It would be interesting to see how the democracy crusaders in Washington would spin that point when it tips.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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