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Liberation after the liberation

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

In late March 2003, as Coalition troops moved towards Baghdad and before the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein was complete, Neal Ascherson warned:

“Liberation hurts. In Iraq, it comes with humiliation and fear about the future. A UN transition regime must replace the military governors as soon as possible, and must move quickly towards democracy. And the White House fanatics have to realise that a free Iraq cannot be designed to suit their ideology. It will be ungrateful. It will have policies they dislike. This is called independence. If it is denied, then the real liberation of Iraq will happen unpredictably, and bloodily, in the future.”

A year later it seems that the ‘real liberation’ has begun.

Perhaps the trigger was the local elections which showed that secular candidates would defeat religious ones in a fair and open vote. Writing on 5 April 2004 from Nasiriya, capital of the Shi’a province of Dhi-Qar in southern Iraq, Jonathan Steele reported that seventeen of the province’s towns had voted in municipal elections over the previous six weeks and “in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists”.

Faced with the prospect of possible marginalisation as an opposition rather than governing force, were Shi’a drawn to polarise the situation to gain advantage from an American over-reaction?

If so, have they got what they wanted? In openDemocracy.net, Firas Al-Atraqchi and Laura Sandys consider the consequences as the young Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr not only raises the banner of militant opposition to continued American occupation, but in doing so seeks Sunni support in a bid for nationalist and (to that extent his form of) secular support.

United States commanders insist before the cameras that they are in control.

No mistake could be graver than to treat the political leadership of a society as a matter of ‘control’ when the stated aim is democracy. Is President Bush ‘in control’ of America? Of course not. Democratic rule is a matter of consent - and the outcome of consent cannot be designed or controlled. This is the glory and the menace of democracy.

How can Iraq become a democracy? How can a broken society, finally freed of a 35-year dictatorship, be assisted towards consent-based rule? It needs calm understanding, the de-escalation of violence, the establishment of law, a growing acceptance of legitimacy, friendly relations with neighbours and international support.

This is hardly a description of American policy, which our columnist Paul Rogers has regularly detailed as being one of foolishly playing Osama bin Laden’s game – and who this week examines the intense strains on a US military stretched to the limit by George W. Bush’s strategic ambitions.

But what should be done? As American ‘control’ over Iraq comes under fire, there is a sound of chortling from some who opposed the US invasion. Scorn is poured especially on those who, as Neal Ascherson spelt out, look to a swift United Nations takeover of outside security forces and a swift move to self-rule, including the right to expel US bases and condemn Israel, if that is the considered will and opinion of Iraq.

By advocating any form of international support, these soft opponents of America are presented as acting as ‘cover’ for the west and imperialism.

At a time of polarisation it can be hard to hold onto judgments regarding the larger picture, the complexity of the forces at work, the realities behind the two sides of ‘either you are with us or against us’.

I was an opponent of Saddam Hussein, who longed for his overthrow. But I was obliged to march against the US invasion. However much I sympathised with Saddam’s Iraqi opponents I argued in openDemocracy.net (“World opinion: the new superpower?”, 18 March 2003) that the American move on Iraq was part of an ill-conceived global strategy carried out by a leadership that cared little for the people and realities of Iraq:

“This is why the popular opposition to the war will not be proved wrong, as Bush and Blair presume it will be, if the two leaders get to Baghdad with relatively little human cost to be welcomed there as liberators. For America’s capacity to act without legal restraint is not in doubt, nor is its ability to avoid human casualties if it so wishes. The question the world is asking is to what larger ends will such power be used?”

The danger now is that a new US administration (or, if Rupert Murdoch is to be believed, the current administration after it is re-elected) will default back to supporting another dictatorship that fits more or less snugly with the kinds of regimes America has made its allies across the Arab world.

The neo-cons have declared the need for democracy across the ‘greater Middle East’. Are they right! But the less credibility they have as the people to introduce democracy the moreimportant it becomes to support it. It remains the right thing, even if they are the wrong people going about it in the wrong way.

As Iraq moves towards its own liberation and throws off America’s timetable, it is important for us to extend every hand and ear to all Iraqi democrats of every creed and sect - Kurd and Arab, Sunni and Shi’a - for they cannot build democracy on their own.


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