The American factor is for many radical Iranians more crucial than even the Shi'ite factor.
From black sheep to aliens
Safa A. Hussein
As you tour the streets of Baghdad these days, your eyes can hardly avoid the tens of thousands of posters and banners of candidates for the March 7 parliamentary elections. The Iraqi media and Arab satellite TV networks offer heavy coverage of the campaign. More than 6,000 candidates are competing for 323 seats in the next parliament. More than 300 political entities have registered, of which 251 are running as part of a list or coalition. For most Iraqis, the coming general elections will decide the shape of the next parliament and the identity of the next prime minister. So candidates focus on issues that matter to the majority of Iraqis: basic services, welfare and security.
But these elections are also very important to other countries, especially the United States and Iraq's neighbors in the region. Nor is it easy to ignore the bias of both Iraqi and Arab media for or against certain parties, especially the so-called Islamic parties.
Turkey, like the European Union, would like to see progress toward stability and democracy in Iraq, which with its resources, population and geographic position is a key to stability in a region that is a major supplier of oil for Turkey but also a big market for Turkish products. Turkey is not very comfortable with the political gains the Kurds have achieved across its border in northern Iraq. But in view of the Turks' limited capacity to influence events there, they have apparently decided to live with this situation rather than attempt to change it.
The Iranians, on the other hand, are in a comfortable position concerning these elections. They are friendly with all the major competing players in Iraq and have additional means of influencing the situation.
The United States appreciates the importance of the Iraqi elections more than others, and for several reasons. Firstly, promoting democracy has always been one of the pillars of American foreign policy (at least theoretically). The Americans have invested hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of their soldiers' lives in Iraq, with one of their goals being to make it a democracy. A successful, fair and inclusive election in Iraq is a success for them.
Secondly, the Americans anticipate that elections that include even senior Baathists (who are banned by Iraqi law from running for political office) will contribute to reducing violence and enhancing stability--crucial factors in the American plan to withdraw all troops by 2011 and redeploy them in Afghanistan.
Lastly, the outcome of this election is likely to shape the political system in Iraq for many years to come. Accordingly, this will also shape Iraq's relations with the US. The Americans were very helpful in supporting the Iraqi government's efforts to prepare these elections. Their "support-on-request" offer is factored into the Iraqi security plan for the elections. Earlier, they played a positive "conciliatory" role to help Iraqi lawmakers resolve disputes over the elections law. However, their efforts to block or freeze the decision of Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission to bar Baathists from running in the elections were criticized by many Iraqis as unacceptable interference. Some politicians have even argued that the American administration is facilitating the partnering of Baathists in the Iraqi government in an effort to strengthen the anti-Iranian line in Iraqi politics.
The position of Arab countries regarding the Iraqi elections is much more complicated. For most, Saddam Hussein's regime was in its day the "black sheep" of the Arab family. Yet this does not render the recent and current Shi'ite-led governments in Iraq normal "white sheep"; rather, they are perceived as "aliens".
In movies, people usually observe aliens with some concern, often misunderstand their activities or intentions and eventually intervene against or even attack them. This approximates the attitude of Arab countries toward the new regime in Iraq, which has not been accepted into the Arab club for several reasons, including fear of democracy, promotion of minority rights and the influence of Iran-Arab tensions in the region.
After a period of "negative" monitoring of the course of events in Iraq, many Arab countries have decided to act and intervene in the coming elections. They are financially supporting specific political parties and using influential media machines like the al-Arabia and al-Jazeera satellite channels (as well as Iraqi satellite channels that are financed by Arab states, like al-Sharqia and al-Baghdadia) to undermine the dominant Islamic Shi'ite parties.
Bearing in mind the difficulties many Iraqis face in their daily lives, whether concerning security or basic services, the messages delivered by these satellite channels are powerful and can be influential if they succeed in associating these difficulties with the dominant political parties. But considering their frustration with the indifference of the Arab states toward their sufferings--whether under Saddam's regime or bearing the brunt of al-Qaeda terrorism--will the majority of Iraqis buy this logic?- Published 25/2/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.
More foreign than domestic interest
Saad N. Jawad
There are many claims and complaints that external elements are trying to manipulate the coming elections in Iraq. Some of these are substantiated while others are made for propaganda purposes. That there are strong external influences is beyond doubt. Some of these external elements play a direct role while others are satisfied with an indirect one.
The most obvious elements directly interfering in the elections are the US and Iran. In the run-up to the elections, US representatives in Iraq were involved in talks with those whom they regard as people or parties that had been marginalized in previous elections. The talks, however, prompted the present Iraqi government and Tehran to accuse the US of attempting to bring the Baath party back to power. Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, Iran's president, even publicly declared that US attempts to bring back the Baathists would not succeed and that the Iraqis would not allow such a comeback. Subsequently, the government's de-Baathification committee issued a list banning some 500 candidates from participating in the coming elections under the pretext that they were Baathists.
The US administration indirectly denounced the move and called--through officials like Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state--for elections that would allow representatives from all sectors of Iraq to participate. The highest-ranking US military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, however, went further and accused the two men leading the de-Baathification committee, Ahmad Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, of being agents of Iran working on the direct instructions of the hardline revolutionary guards of Iran. Then, when an Iraqi appeals court issued a judgment saying that the ban on 500 candidates was illegal, the US was accused of meddling in the internal matters of Iraq. The court was eventually made to change its ruling.
Both Iran and the US are deeply concerned about the results of the coming elections. The US is interested in having a secular and more representative parliament and government in order to facilitate the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq in 2011. It is also interested in presenting itself as a mediating power that, despite the chaos and disaster, managed to bring democracy to Iraq. Needless to say, a stable Iraq with a weak government would best serve US interests.
Iran has other objectives. Tehran wants the Iraqi government and parliament primarily filled with people loyal to Iran, if not actually holding Iranian citizenship as a second nationality. In other words, Iran wants to see all opposition to the present Shi'ite-dominated government overcome. There are rumors that, as happened in previous elections, ordinary Iranians are being covertly infiltrated across the border with false Iraqi documents to take part in the vote, especially in the southern Shi'ite provinces, where strong anti-Iranian sentiments are increasing especially after the Iranian occupation of an Iraqi oil field on the border with Iran. Shi'ites there are also unhappy with the increasing presence of the Iranian intelligence service in their areas as well as in the central government. In short, unlike the US, Iran wants to see a strong, loyal militant Shi'ite government in Baghdad that is ready to side with it in any future confrontation with the US.
A third external party that is showing a keen interest in the Iraqi elections and has started to play a direct part, is Saudi Arabia. It is an open secret that the Saudis have been supporting, financially and politically, some Sunni groups in Iraq in an attempt to balance the overwhelming Shi'ite domination over Iraqi politics since 2003. Lately, Riyadh has become more open in its support for the former Shi'ite prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who is trying to present himself as both secular and obedient to the US political vision in the region. In fact it was Allawi's list that suffered the most from the decision to bar 500 candidates from standing for election. In an unprecedented move, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia publicly received Allawi recently, a reception that was widely covered by the media but strangely only included one other senior official, the director of Saudi intelligence, Prince Miqrin bin Abdul Aziz. It seems that the Saudis, after realizing the futility of wishing for a Sunni-dominated government in Iraq are convinced that the best solution is to support a secular Shi'ite leader loyal to western politics, with a fair number of Sunni personalities at his side and no allegiance to Iran.
The role of other influential elements such as Syria and Turkey is indirect. Syria is, on the one hand, not ready to antagonize Iran and lose support in its struggle with Israel, and, on the other, not happy with accusations that it is facilitating the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq. Thus the Syrians are indirectly supporting the weakening of the present government, hoping that the large Iraqi community it is sheltering, mostly Baathist, can have a bigger say in the elections.
Turkey's major concern is increasing Kurdish influence and the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq. It is obvious that Turkey is eager to see a strong central government, a trimming of Kurdish influence and the safeguarding of the rights and position of the Turcoman minority in Kirkuk. While Turkish support for the Turkmens in Kirkuk is clear enough, the Turkish government is also satisfied with the growing strength of the Islamic Kurdish parties and that of the Movement for Change in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are rumors that Ankara is indirectly supporting the opposing Kurdish Islamic parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There are other elements that play a secret role with the aim of keeping Iraq destabilized. These elements, some of them neighboring and others regional, are interested in not seeing Iraq strong, united and affluent. They think that such an Iraq could always be a threat to them. Thus these elements play an indirect role in widening the gap between the different lists participating in the elections.
In short, the forthcoming Iraqi election is attracting more foreign attention than domestic. Most Iraqis, after the experience of the past seven years and two elections, have lost interest due to the huge amount of corruption, insecurity, lack of services and increasing poverty. Hence it is likely that external factors and influences will decide election results.- Published 25/2/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
Americans have always believed that democracy would be that one great gift they would give the world, a treasure that we would nurture and then (hands a-trembling), pass on to others. That it was purchased, Golgotha-like, by rag-clad and starving citizen soldiers fighting a foreign king made it all the more precious--and Christ-like. In the hands of Thomas Jefferson, Paul's imprecation ("there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood") became a secular litany: "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time," he said, "with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Don't laugh: many Americans once believed that Abraham Lincoln's Good Friday assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth ("that devil") was ordained by a greater power, who lay "a fit sacrifice upon the altar of freedom" that "redeemed" the nation. A maudlin American soldier later reflected that "His death" (Lincoln's presumably) was "akin to that earlier sacrifice" and even appropriately accompanied by "a darkness that swept athwart the sky". Lincoln died, this soldier wrote, though "his heart was full of Conciliation & Charity & Forgiveness." And darkness descended, and the earth shook. But wait! All was not lost. American democracy, tried by "the crucible" (Lincoln's phrase) of civil war rose again from the dead as a nation reunited--and so takes its place once again at the head of nations.
Waving flags. Organ tones. Fade.
I wonder what Tom and Abe would think about democracy in Iraq? Six major slates of candidates are contending for seats in the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections--a hodgepodge of warring strains and currents that have resulted in the establishment of nearly as many political parties as there are seats in the Council of Representatives. Worse yet, no striding lion of Babylon (as it were) has emerged as the favorite, a puzzle to Americans who believe that a nation's first leaders must be like Washington: soft-spoken, modest and thoroughly boring. A painting on a wall. Then too, America's vision of democracy in Iraq did not imagine the flood of money from neighbor-patrons: Saudis and Iranians and Islamists--who all, not so shockingly, seem to think they have a stake in the election's outcome.
Finally, and most embarrassingly, none of Iraq's major political figures are premising their campaigns on their ties to their "liberators"--a lesson learned, at least in some small part, from America's fatal embrace of Fateh in 2006, when US support for the mainstream Palestinian party ensured its defeat. That is to say: the United States is not standing on the sidelines in Iraq; it has been pushed there. Think of it: with more than 4,300 Americans dead and tens of billions of dollars expended (not to mention the loss of national prestige, confidence, and self-congratulation--oh, and the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis) the least influential voice in Iraq is that of the United States of America.
Naively, Americans believed they could create a democracy in their own image: a "Cinderella Democracy". After sweeping the streets of the flowers that greeted our arrival, we would (prince-like) proffer a beautiful glass slipper to just the right candidate--albeit one of our choosing. This leader, this faux Washington, would then dutifully wing his way to Jerusalem to kiss the ass of the Israelis. The resulting shift would work miracles: Damascus and Tehran would be intimidated, the region's Salafists would be defeated, the Palestinians would be humbled, Israel would be safe and the creation of a secular, pluralist, multiparty, market-oriented democracy at the heart of the Middle East would transform the region. America would triumph.
What is so disturbing about this vision (and most especially for its neo-conservative creators) is that, in large part, it is actually starting to come true. For amid Iraq's continuing bloody tide and the near-anarchy of contending voices and armed militias, Iraqi democracy is slowly and inexorably taking shape. What is being created from the wreckage of the American occupation is both akin to what we intended and different from what we envisioned: what is emerging is a secular, pluralist, multiparty, market-oriented democracy. But, alas, this is not the age of miracles: Damascus and Tehran are not intimidated, the region's Salafists are not defeated, the Palestinians are not humbled--and there isn't an Iraqi leader in sight who would be caught dead in Jerusalem. Or have anything to do with the Americans.- Published 25/2/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2010).
The Iranian dimension
The general perception among many experts and observers of Iran is that the Islamic Iranian leaders prefer to see a grand victory by Iraq's Shi'ites in the coming general elections there next month. It is of course true that Tehran desires to see a government in Iraq dominated by Shi'ites. But this is only part of the truth. There are a host of other Iranian considerations regarding the structure of power in Iraq.
First and foremost is the "American factor". It would be no exaggeration to say that this is for many radical Iranians more crucial than even the Shi'ite factor. If we consider two different groups, one liberal and pro-western or, even worse, pro-American but Shi'ite, and the second not Shi'ite but anti-western and, better still, anti-American, there is little doubt which of the two would be preferred or even actively supported by the Iranians. In other words, being Shi'ite, while important for the Iranian radical leaders, is not the exclusive criterion; Tehran also wants to know where the group stands vis-a-vis the United States.
This is a crucial point that is frequently not understood by many Arabs, both inside and outside Iraq, who constantly accuse the Islamic regime of trying to install a Shi'ite regime in Iraq and, indeed, seeking to create enclaves of Shi'ite domination in the Middle East. Of course the Islamic regime prefers to see a Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, recently, Yemen. But its priority is anti-Americanism, not Shi'ism. This is one explanation for the Islamic regime's close ties with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and other anti-American national leaders.
The "anti-American factor" means that Tehran will not support secular and pro-American Shi'ite groups such as the one represented by Iyad Allawi. In contrast, the Islamic leaders will throw all the support they can behind Shi'ite groups represented by radicals like Moghtada Sadr.
The next consideration is the "Grand Ayatollah Sistani factor". Iran's leaders pay a great deal of respect to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Conversely, Sistani has spoken warmly about the Iranian leadership. Despite the exchange of these apparent warm messages between the Iraqi Shi'ite leader in Najaf and his fellow ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran, there are two major differences between them.
The first concerns the US. Sistani does not share the Iranian ayatollahs' strong anti-American sentiment. Far from it, he has tacitly endorsed the US presence on his country's soil. Every time Sistani makes a comment or offers an opinion critical of the Americans, the Iranian media immediately magnify it. But on other occasions, when his comments have been more accommodating and compromising toward the US, they have been ignored or manipulated by the same media in the Islamic Republic.
The second difference between the ayatollahs in Qom and in Najaf is more fundamental. It is over the substantial issue of the jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih), upon which the foundations of the Islamic Republic are based. Ever since the emergence of the Islamic regime in 1979, Iranian clerical leaders have defended the idea of the Shi'ite jurisprudent as the sole system for a Shi'ite state. Anyone who does not support this notion has been branded not a proper Shi'ite, counterrevolutionary and, not infrequently, an infidel. To the Iranians' great dismay, Sistani has avoided supporting the concept of velayat-e faqih. Of course he has not explicitly dismissed the notion, but the very fact that he has not supported it has created a major lacuna in Iran's grand ideological scenario.
The third Iranian consideration is the sensitive issue of "de-Baathification". The recent American intervention to persuade Iraqi leaders to allow ex-Baath party members to participate in the coming general elections caused a strong reaction in Iran. The Islamic leaders accused the US government of trying to restore to power "its old Iraqi allies of the Saddam era". The Iranian media wrote that the Muslim Iraqi people will not allow the return to power of these former US allies during the coming elections.
Finally, there is the important issue of oil. Last December, the Iraqi government signed several substantial oil contracts with major international oil consortiums, including Anglo-American companies. Iranians observed this unique development with concern insofar as one of the oil fields in question is located near the Iranian border. The Iraqi authorities then suddenly announced that Iranian troops had occupied an oil field near the country's borders. Tehran dismissed the "occupation" and explained that "the Iranian border guards were trying to demarcate the border".
In short, the Islamic government was trying to convey to both western oil companies and the Iraqi government that there are major border disputes between the two countries and that no one can simply enter these areas, whether for oil or any other objective. The Islamic government will be watching the outcome of the March elections in Iraq to begin the painful business of settling these border disputes, which were the principal cause of the bitter eight-year war between the two countries.- Published 25/2/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.