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Iraq – the democratic option

Mary Kaldor
13 November 2003

I have just returned to London from Iraq following a research trip, along with my colleague Yahia Said, and I am struck by the gulf between what is reported on television and how it feels to be inside Iraq. I was there on the first day of Ramadan when five bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing 42 Iraqis and one American soldier.

Indeed, every day I was there some act of terrorism took place – and these have continued since, with the attack on Italian police headquarters in Nasiriya which killed 27 people (including 18 Italians) and injured 79 only the most dramatic. Yet violence is by no means the whole story; it is targeted and confined to certain places. Elsewhere, the picture is immensely complex with lots of activity and hope as well as formidable difficulties.

Probably because of the way Iraq is reported, a growing number of people are calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq and the immediate withdrawal of United States and British forces. This shift of opinion is not confined to those who always opposed the war. The use of the term ‘resistance’ to describe the wave of attacks, not just against occupying forces but also against Iraqi civilians, implies that an unsavoury combination of remnants of the former regime, Islamic fighters and local forces, is somehow legitimate and represents the true aspiration of the Iraqis.

I agree that the occupying forces need to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis. But I think it is important to stress that the need is not just for Iraqi sovereignty but for democratic self-rule. Otherwise, there is a risk not of a return to dictatorship but of pervasive violence, by the former regime and its allies and among tribal, sectarian and criminal groups.

Those of us who opposed the war must now be calling for democracy in Iraq – not immediate withdrawal, nor even the accelerated timetable for withdrawal that appears to be the decision of the Bush administration following its urgent consultations in Washington with Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). We should support local democratic initiatives that can help to achieve democracy in Iraq, even if this takes time. ‘Preventive democracy’ is the best way to prevent future invasions and to end the occupation.

Iraq’s reconstruction: two models

In Iraq today, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is formally in control. But because of the security situation, CPA officials are confined to the so-called green zone, a large area of Baghdad that includes the Al-Rashid Hotel and a former palace of Saddam Hussein, hidden behind concrete walls and barbed wire that ensure little contact with Iraqi society.

There are not enough troops, and in any case they do not have experience of public order duties. The destruction of the old regime and the weakness of newly-emerging Iraqi institutions has left a security as well as a political vacuum. The Iraq Governing Council (IGC), established by the CPA, is dominated by exiles and only has a consultative status, although it is beginning to act politically by opposing the deployment of Turkish troops, for example, or resisting privatisation.

American ideology

Within the CPA, there are two dominant approaches. The first is the ideological approach that tends to be favoured by the Americans. Many of the civilian officials are former Republican staffers and people from neo-conservative think-tanks who have little actual experience of post-conflict reconstruction.

When I was in the CPA offices in the palace, the Green Zone was hit by mortar fire and we were evacuated to the basement. There, some of the American officials were overheard discussing how ‘the Democrats’ would play it back home, with their eyes on the election not the current situation in Iraq.

The neo-con aim is to impose an American model of ‘free-market democracy’ (to quote a CPA official). The Americans have a strategic plan for rapid implementation of this model, and want it achieved, with luck, before the 2004 Presidential election. They have specified the milestones to be achieved in this process – the ‘seven steps to good governance’.

Their recipe, like many transition recipes, involves wiping the slate clean through the destruction of existing institutions – hence the dismantling of the army, the Bremer decree on de-Ba’athification which removed many qualified people from key positions, and plans for the rapid privatisation of state institutions.

The problem with this approach is that it compounds the triple humiliation felt by many Iraqis, especially men: that they allowed Saddam to rule them and feared him; that their national army collapsed without seriously resisting the Coalition forces; and that they failed to liberate Iraq for themselves.

The neo-con approach destroys but does not create. It exacerbates the sense of a broken society. To implement their policies, the Americans rely on a highly visible American military presence, and on contractors like Creative Associates Inc and the Research Triangle International. The latter are supposed to teach Iraqis how to have civil society à la the United States. They also employ a bevy of ‘advisors’ and ‘consultants’, returned exiles who dash about with CPA phones (the CPA phone system is the only one which works), high salaries, and cars with drivers and bodyguards. They are disconnected from Iraqi society and their presence is likely to be seeding future resentment and frustration.

British pragmatism

The second approach is the ‘realist’ or pragmatic approach to be found mainly among the British. This involves the handover of power either to the political parties dominated by exiles, or to tribal and religious leaders who became more important during the Saddam period. What is striking in Iraq is the number of people either in tribal or religious garb. There are sheikhs everywhere as well as women with their heads covered and men with rings on their little fingers (a symbol of Islamism).

These tribal and religious loyalties are not anachronisms. On the contrary, like the clans and ethnic groupings in the ex-Soviet states, they developed out of patronage networks, which emerged in response to the destruction of civic institutions during Saddam’s rule. They are contemporary reconstructions both because they were used by Saddam Hussein as an instrument of his rule and because they provided a degree of social solidarity in an otherwise brutalised set of social relations.

On our very first night, we saw a man in elaborate tribal dress in our hotel. Someone whispered that he was the ‘sheikh of sheikhs’, the Chairman of the Council of Sheikhs. He turned out to come from Ealing in London, although he preferred to talk to us in Arabic – he was about to be interviewed by al-Jazeera and wanted to appear authentic. Later we discovered that there were many such ‘sheikhs of sheikhs’ in various councils and associations.

Many of these groups (tribes, ethnic or religious parties) have their own para-military wings. Just as in the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, they try to gain power within the administrative boundaries, inherited from the past (in Iraq this means the eighteen governorates). For example, I visited the governorate of Meysan. There the dominant figure is a romantic Robin Hood-like Sheikh, who had escaped from one of Saddam’s prisons in a celebrated break-out and then organised bands of resisters in the Arab marshes. When the Americans took Baghdad, he organised militia to prevent looting and, effectively liberated the southern town of Amara. Now he is a member of the governing council and his militia have become officers in the local police, causing internal tensions and mixed loyalties. (One of his officers was assassinated just before we arrived). In other places it is the religious parties that are dominant, the Badr corps, for example, trained in Iran and attached to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), or the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.

In many cases, the British have made deals with these groups. This may have narrowed the security vacuum and reduced the space for the remnants of the regime. But the risk is that they will transform these governorates into repressive fiefdoms, with a disregard for the rule of law and a high risk of tribal and religious violence as each tries to carve out territories.

The emerging civil society

Iraq, it seems to me, needs an approach that is different from either the American ideologues or the pragmatists. It needs to be democratic rather than tribal or sectarian – but it has to be a genuine Iraqi-bred democracy rather than the abstract model fantasised by the neo-cons.

There are in Iraq today many new democratic initiatives, especially among students and women’s groups, journalists, artists and filmmakers. Many of these initiatives are small and tentative. Iraqis have a huge distrust of politics, a legacy of fear and disappointment, and lack of experience at self-organisation to overcome. Despite this, they are developing a political presence. The students for example, are campaigning for changes in the curriculum or to get back the student hostels currently occupied by US troops. There are also political parties that do have roots in society – both Da’wa and the Iraqi Communist Party, for example, operated underground during the Saddam years and have branches all over the country. Communist offices in Baghdad are teeming with young people and offering all kinds of social services like vaccinations or legal aid.

What is important at this moment is to find a framework for strengthening and empowering these and other groups and linking them to the new economy. It is not money they need, though money could be spent, for example, on computers and internet access. It is access and voice. Most of them, like us, opposed the war. But now, they do not want an immediate end to the occupation. They want security, the reconstruction of Iraqi institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Only this offers them the possibility to shape their own future.

A space for democracy

These voices need to be heard. For example, the debate on the constitution at present centres on whether the constitutional assembly should be elected. But what is really important at this point is not so much representation as deliberation. There needs to be a public debate in the media, in universities, in women’s forums, mosques and factories and offices, so that ordinary Iraqis feel engaged in the constitutional process and feel they can influence its content. Those who want to handover sovereignty to Iraqis now propose to rush the constitutional process and hold elections as soon as possible. It might be better to give more power to the existing governing council and to allow time for a genuine deliberative process.

Another key issue is the debate about the handover of the security portfolio. There are many in the Iraq Governing Council calling for immediate handover of security to Iraqis. But which Iraqis? At present, the handover of security to Iraqis would mean the handover of security to tribal, religious and ethnic militia – that would reduce the space for independent democratic initiatives. It is really important to focus on the development of Iraqi security institutions – the police, the army and, above all, the judiciary – if the occupiers are to leave behind a framework for democracy rather than particularist in-fighting.

Tragically the UN has largely withdrawn. Before he was assassinated, Sergio Vieira de Mello was attempting to encourage the democratic option. The killing and wounding of his team on 19 August 2003 deprived Iraq of the best possible seedbed for its success.

Nonetheless, there are three ways in which the impetus for the democratic option can be supported so as to oppose both terrorism and the ‘war on terror’.

First, individual activists can travel to Iraq and express their solidarity. I came across a Canadian peace activist who is doing just that. She has a group called Phoenix Rising – she plans to organise an international conference on peace and justice in Baghdad. Or they can make links with groups or even political parties in Iraq, listening to their arguments and passing on their messages to strengthen a bottom-up democratic process.

Second, there are democratic voices within the CPA alongside the neo-conservatives or the neo-colonialists. Now that the United Nations’s influence has been so wounded, other governments could play a role in moderating the policies of the occupying powers and supporting democratic initiatives inside Iraq, both from the IGC and from civil society.

Third, there is a presidential election coming up in America. Some people want America to fail in Iraq so that George W. Bush will lose the election. This kind of thinking prioritises domestic US concerns above the fate of Iraqis. It is as sick as the preoccupations of the Republicans in the CPA about ‘how will this play in the election?’ No one should support the military opposition to America. And there should be no immediate withdrawal of US troops until a framework for democracy is established.

We need to support bottom-up, rooted democratic processes in Iraq, not a crash constitution imposed from above, or giving power to paramilitary, neo-tribal or sectarian groups. A peaceful democratic framework is possible in Iraq. It is what is owed to the Iraqi people – thanks to all that has been done to them, by Saddam, by the failure to support the uprising in 1991, by the sanctions, and by the 2003 invasion. The presidential campaign of 2004 is an opportunity to argue for genuine Iraqi democracy against the neo-con vision.

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