Iraq - The west's bogus "democratic" process - myth and reality

May-June 2005

When, on 28 April, Bush hailed the appointment of Iraq's new government as "real good progress in Iraq", he deliberately ignored some rather important "details".

Indeed, the fact that it had taken almost 3 months since the 30 January election, for the Iraqi National Assembly to finally vote in this new government was, in and of itself, indicative of its fragility. No less significant was the inability displayed by the rival political factions to agree on a full government despite this protracted horse-trading: out of the 37 positions of the government presented by prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, 7 had still to be filled, including two vice-premiership posts and the heavyweight Defence and Petroleum portfolios. Moreover, when the proposed government was overwhelmingly endorsed by the National Assembly with only 5 votes against it, 89 of the 274 deputies had made a point of boycotting the session officially, as a protest against the wheeling and dealings involved in the allocation of ministries, but primarily because they objected to being refused a large enough share of the bounty.

To talk about "real good progress" was, therefore, something of an overstatement, especially in view of what followed over the next three days: yet another large wave of coordinated terrorist attacks across the country, which claimed 102 dead and 230 injured among the Iraqi population.

These events put in a nutshell the true nature of the political process initiated by the imperialist powers in Iraq, which, contrary to Bush's and Blair's claims, has, of course, nothing to do with "democracy", least of all for the Iraqi population.

Since the bogus pretext of Iraq's WMDs blew up in their faces, western leaders have justified the war and occupation of Iraq by boasting of having "freed" the Iraqi people of a hated dictator. But the artificial overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by the western invasion did not "free" the Iraqi population. It only created a gaping political vacuum, which was quickly filled by the reactionary forces that had been allowed to survive in the shadow of the dictatorship. Soon, most of the Iraqi political scene was occupied by rival factions - in most cases backed by armed militias, including those now participating in the political process - whose only objective was to establish their own brand of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in true imperialist fashion, the occupation forces went out of their way to keep these reactionary forces on board, in order to better control the population.

The result is today's fractious political process, with its myriad of rival factions and cliques fighting for the remnants of Saddam Hussein's heritage and, in most cases, for the favours of the western powers. For Bush and Blair, this political process serves a two-fold purpose. It is a convenient device for them to cover their policy in Iraq with a semblance of legitimacy in front of their domestic public opinion. And it provides the imperialist leaders with a mechanism through which to try and select reliable partners for the future - that is, assuming the Iraqi time bomb does not explode in their hands too early for that.

Whether this new regime is has the capability of restoring some sort of normality for the population - let alone the political will to alleviate the material hardship in which it is forced to live - is highly unlikely, even with the financial and military backing of the West. But this is not what the imperialist powers are after, anyway. Their aim was never to uphold the democratic rights of the Iraqi population, nor to restore normal living conditions in the country. The profits of imperialist multinationals - whether in banking, oil, gas, armaments, etc., have always done very well out of Third World dictatorships. In fact, they need these dictatorships to protect their looting against the populations. So, despite the floods of hot air produced by London and Washington about "bringing democracy" to the Middle East, it is not "democracy" but the "welfare" of imperialist companies, which remains at the forefront of the West's agenda in Iraq and in the whole region.

30 January - a balance sheet

The 30 January election of the 275-strong National Assembly constitutes the basis of the current political process. According to western leaders, it is supposed to have been the "first democratic election in Iraq".

However, this election was marred with bigotry - religious, nationalist, regionalist, etc. Its results were distorted by a number of factors: the refusal of many members of the Sunni minority to have anything to do with a political process masterminded by the butchers of Falujah; the impotence of the occupation forces to protect effectively polling stations and voters against possible terrorist threats, particularly in the central and northern part of the country; and the general situation in the country, which made the voting and counting chaotic, at best. Above all, Iraqi voters were only given a "say" within the parameters defined by the imperialist leaders' political agenda and the threat of their mighty military machines.

Nevertheless, from London's and Washington's point of view, this election had to take place as planned, despite the casualties caused daily by terrorist attacks, and to be a "success". Hence the ridiculous turnout figure of "72% and maybe 80% or more", announced by western governments on the evening of the election. Although this surrealistic result was soon reduced to 67%, even at this level it still did not tally with the admission made by some local US commanders that the turnout had probably been no more than 10% the large towns of the "Sunni triangle". Besides, in Mosul, the country's third largest city, the entire staff of the electoral commission had resigned en masse. So, who had been there to do the counting anyway?

By the time the election results were finally certified, in mid-February, the official turnout figure posted by the Iraqi authorities themselves had been quietly reduced to 58%, although this was not considered worth reporting by the western media. Since then, human rights organisations researchers have produced various estimates showing that the real turnout cannot have been more than 50%, if that. These turnout figures give an idea of what probably happened on election day. Voting patterns were very uneven. Predictably the turnout was very low in the "Sunni triangle", particularly in Anbar (the province surrounding Fallujah and Ramadi), where only 2% of voters registered a vote across this province. But, more importantly maybe, the overall turnout figures would indicate that support for this election was far lower than had been predicted among the Shia population, which makes up 60% of the Iraqi population, especially since all reports showed a very high turnout (above 80%) in the Kurdish areas, which comprise 17% of the population.

But then, how could it had been otherwise? What real choice or stake was there in this election for the vast majority of the population, Shia or not?

More than a hundred lists were registered for this election, but only four of them really had the resources needed to stage an effective election campaign. Indeed, in a situation where holding public meetings was not an option in most areas for security reasons, access to every available communications medium was vital. The only lists which had such facilities were: the United Iraqi Alliance list, formed by the two main Shia religious parties (the Dawa party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI) together with a motley crowd of 12 smaller religious and secular Shia-based groups; the list formed jointly by the two main Kurdish parties; the list of the then prime minister, Ilyad Allawi, and the list of the then president, Ghazi al-Yawer.

Of course, each one of these four lists claimed to represent the whole of the Iraqi population. To substantiate this claim, they all had a sprinkling of candidates belonging to the country's various religious and ethnic groups. But their sectarian bias, religious and otherwise, was unmistakable. Even Allawi's list, which was the only one claiming to be secular, was mostly formed of former Shia dissidents of the Baath party and aimed at appealing to the formerly relatively marginalised Shia middle class.

This election was not, therefore, about policies. Nor did it provide voters with a way of expressing their feelings about the situation - certainly not against the Western occupation or the catastrophic failure of the country's so-called "reconstruction", since the main forces behind all of the four main lists were up to their necks in co-operating with the occupation forces and benefiting from their corrupt "reconstruction" administration. The only thing that one could really do with a ballot paper, was to register one's religious or national identity!

This sectarian polarisation was reflected in the election results, with the Shia United Iraqi Alliance list winning 48% of the vote and 140 seats, while the Kurdish list won almost 26% and 75 seats and Allawi's list nearly 14% and 40 seats. With 1.8% and 5 seats, Al-Yawer's Sunni list did far worse than had been expected, due to the boycott called by most Sunni organisations. As to the other 107 lists, they shared the remaining 10% votes between them and a total of 15 seats.

After 30 January - the scramble for positions

At face value, an assembly in which the two largest forces control over 78% of the seats would seem easy to manage, as long as these two forces manage to find common ground on every issue.

However, despite the fact that the Shia and Kurdish lists did have that sort of control over the new National Assembly, they were unable to prevent 3 months of bitter in-fighting between rival factions from blocking the formation of a new government.

One of the reasons for this was the fact that the lists that stood in the election were in no way homogeneous. They included all kinds of groupings, local strongmen, notabilities, etc., each with their specific agendas. The only thing that had kept these lists together up until polling day, was the electoral system imposed by the occupation authorities - each list was to be allocated a number of seats more or less proportional to its score, with a small advantage given to the lists achieving the largest scores. So that all participants in a list had a vested interest in keeping their differences to themselves for the duration of the election campaign, in order to maximise the score of the list and, therefore, their own chances of winning a share of the spoils.

Once the election was over, however, there was no longer any incentive to stick to this self-imposed discipline. Even before the National Assembly had a chance to hold its first sitting, a host of new voting "blocs" had already emerged in its ranks. So, for instance, a Turkoman bloc and a Chaldo-Assyrian bloc had been formed by deputies belonging to these minorities, who had been elected on a number of different lists. The Kurdish deputies, on the other hand, had reverted to their past divided state, with a PUK bloc and a rival KDP bloc, and so had the two main Shia religious parties, Dawa and SCIRI. A "National Front bloc" had also emerged out of the Shia list, formed by deputies who mere more or less overtly allied to the radical fundamentalist imam Moqtada al-Sadr. And this was only the beginning as other similar blocs materialised later, sometimes on a permanent basis, sometimes on a purely adhoc and temporary basis.

The mushrooming of voting blocs in the National Assembly, each trying to pull the carpet from under their rivals' feet, inevitably reduced the parliamentary weight and cohesion of the big lists. It was bound to result in paralysis for the Assembly. And the fact that the handful of big parties took over control of all negotiations failed to prevent this.

The first stage following the election itself required these main parties to reach an agreement over the names of the presidential council's members - i.e. the president and his two vice-presidents. The presidential council is largely ceremonial, except for one thing: it has the power to veto the composition of the government before the Assembly itself can even have a say. According to the US-imposed constitution, this council had to include a member of each one of the 3 main minorities - Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Because of the Sunni parties' boycott of the election, there was really only one possible candidate for the Sunni post - former president al-Yawer. But Dawa and SCIRI were competing for the council's Shia post and so did the Kurdish PUK and KDP for the Kurdish post. And then of course, there was the issue of deciding which jobs were going to be allocated to which of the 3 main groups. In the end a solution to the stalemate was finally found. Al-Yawer got a vice-presidency; the PUK got the presidency while the KDP got a deputy premiership and the foreign ministry; SCIRI got a vice-presidency while Dawa got the prime ministerial job.

All this bargaining had lasted for over seven weeks but there was a lot more to come with the second stage, which involved the formation of the government itself.

Indeed, allocating government positions proved to be a far more complex task, if only due to the number of posts involved, which whetted the appetite of the many smaller factions, for whom any ministry, no matter how insignificant, represented a considerable means of patronage, if not outright enrichment. Moreover, the fight for governmental jobs was exacerbated by another provision of the US-imposed constitution which said that, this time, all minorities within the Iraqi population should be represented, more or less proportionally to their importance in the population (which was not necessarily the same as their importance in Parliament, especially in the case of the Sunni minority).

One stumbling block was the question of Sunni representatives in government. Due to the Sunni parties' boycott, there were only 17 Sunni deputies in the Assembly, including those elected on non-Sunni lists, and the other factions were quick to take advantage of their numerical weakness to marginalise them, either by arguing for a reduced Sunni representation in government or by demanding that all Sunnis' past association with the Baath party should be investigated first (a demagogical farce as, although those holding top jobs in the Baath party were predominantly Sunnis, many of them came from other minorities as well). To make matter worse, the Sunni deputies elected on al-Yawer's list refused to admit that those elected could represent the Sunni minority, while the leaders of the other lists did not want any portfolio to be given to al-Yawer's men. Besides, the Sunni parties which were not represented in the Assembly had to be invited to the negotiating table, as they had far more clout on the ground than al-Yawer and the other Sunni deputies. In the end, this riddle was not quite resolved since, as a result, several posts, which were meant to go to Sunni politicians were still unfilled when the government was finally endorsed by the Assembly.

But the vexed issue of Sunni representation was not the only one to cause protracted hurdles. The requirement that all minorities should be represented in government had obviously played a role in the mushrooming of rival blocs - and each faction proved prepared to play the religious or ethnic card in order to muscle its way into ministerial positions. Given the general instability of the situation in Iraq, it was possible, even for relatively uninfluential factions to stir up trouble for the authorities, by resorting to demagogy, accusing the newly-elected regime of trying to marginalise a specific section of the population and whipping up its frustration. The extreme poverty and catastrophic social chaos caused by the Western invasion was a fertile enough ground for such manoeuvres.

So for instance, the oil ministry had been allocated to the Shia list after much bargaining. Such a ministry, which is potentially the biggest source of influence and income in the whole cabinet, would have been expected to go to the main parties, Dawa or SCIRI. However, another smaller faction made a bid for it - the Fadila party, a fundamentalist faction allied to Moqtada al-Sadr. There was no way the main parties, nor the occupation authorities for that matter, could accept the idea of handing over control of the oil bounty to the Fadila party. But because this faction was more or less in control of the provincial council in Basra, the country's second largest city, where it had shown that it was capable of attracting support in the streets, the main parties did not dare to take the risk of an open confrontation. So the oil ministry was left unfilled, with Ahmed Chalabi, a crooked businessman and friend of the CIA, as caretaker.

A western-friendly government

Despite this convoluted bargaining and bitter rivalries, the new government is well-suited to the needs of the imperialist powers.

Of course, the US administration did not get quite what they wanted, which was apparently a senior role for former prime minister and CIA/MI6 friend, Ilyad Allawi. Allawi's failure to secure a large enough share of the vote provided the other main parties with enough ammunition to push his party aside.

Nevertheless, all the main posts in the new government are held by politicians whose loyalty has been tried and tested by the imperialist leaders, if only because they held positions in the various governing institutions appointed by the occupation authorities since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. In fact, the whole affair looks like a game of musical chairs. So, for instance, al-Yawer, who is now one of the two vice-presidents, was the previous president appointed by the occupation authorities, whereas al-Jaafari, today's prime minister, was a president and a vice-president in the successive US-appointed governing bodies.

But some of these politicians, particularly those holding the most important posts, were partners of the West long before the invasion.

Such is the case of prime minister al-Jaafari, who is one of the main leaders of the Dawa party. From 1990 until the Western invasion, he was the representative of this party in London and as such, he was in charge of the relations between Dawa and the Western governments. Moreover, al-Jaafari is known to have been a strong advocate of Dawa's independence from Tehran's policy - something which can only put him in Washington's good books. Likewise, Bayan Jabr, the new Interior minister (who is also in charge of the Secret Service) used to be SCIRI's representative in Lebanon and its main intermediary with the West, particularly in 2001-2002, when London and Washington were busy organising conferences with the main Iraqi opposition groups over the prospect of possible "regime change" in Iraq.

Among the other well-known friends of the West in the new government is Ahmed Chalabi, on whose word the CIA and Pentagon appear to have built many fairy tales in the run-up to the Iraq war. Not only has Chalabi been appointed as caretaker for the oil ministry (which is putting Iraq's oil in rather dubious hands, given Chalabi's past convictions for embezzlement, but maybe this is precisely the sort of unscrupulous politician the oil multinationals prefer to deal with!), but he is also a deputy prime minister appointed by the Shia list. For good measure, the new finance minister is none other than Chalabi's own nephew, a businessman brought and bred in the shadow of Wall Street and, therefore, an ideal partner for Western bankers seeking to recoup some of Iraq's public debt on the back of the population or for multinational companies seeking (at some later point) to acquire some part of Iraq's state-owned industries on the cheap.

Finally, and this is vital aspect from the point of view of the imperialist powers, the political forces which are represented in the new government all share the same reactionary outlook. A westernised businessman like Chalabi, a nationalist warlord like Talabani or an advocate of the sharia, like Bayan Jabr, share the same contempt for, and fear of, the exploited masses. This could make them reliable intermediaries for imperialism in its plunder of Iraq's resources.

An unstable regime

But this is assuming that the new regime has enough cohesion to bring to an end the mixture of political terrorism and gangsterism which has been taking such a high toll on the population over the past two years and, at the same time, has made it impossible for imperialist companies to operate freely in Iraq or even to tap its oil reserves in significant quantity.

The process leading to the formation of the new government has already highlighted the fractious nature of the regime. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The rival factions, which are competing for positions in Bagdad, as well as in the various provincial councils, which were also elected on 30 January, do not confine their rivalries to the institutions of the new regime. Despite the fact that, on paper, all armed groups have been officially banned or integrated in the regular army by the occupation authorities, most of these factions still have their own armed militias, sometimes with the tacit agreement of Western commanders.

For instance, the "peshmergas", the Kurdish militias of the PUK and KDP, have been integrated into the Iraqi army, but in separate units, with their chain of command. They now constitute the core of the Iraqi army in the Kurdish areas. But they have been used extensively by US generals - first in the attack against Fallujah, and then in the crushing of Sunni insurgency in Mosul when the local police and Iraqi National Guards failed to confront it. Not only is this a recipe for creating a wall of blood between the Kurdish and Sunni populations, but nothing will prevent the PUK and KDP from using their former militias at some point, if they choose to do so, in order to advance their specific agendas at the expense of other sections of the population or other political forces.

The situation with the other large, heavily armed militia, SCIRI's "Badr brigade" is even more ambiguous. In the British-occupied south, they have been allowed by the British commanders to operate more or less freely in the smaller towns outside Basra. Many of its members joined the police while remaining active in the militia's units. The Badr brigade's leader recently announced plans to transform it into a political movement. But this announcement was contradicted shortly afterwards by the local commander of the brigade in the province of Muthanna, which borders Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who protested against the arrival of Australian troops - taking over from a departing Dutch contingent - on the grounds that the "Badr brigade" was capable of maintaining law and order in the province! In fact, in a recent interview the same leader of the "Badr Brigade" claimed that it was in full control of six southern provinces. This is obviously a powerful lever in the hands of SCIRI, all the more so as SCIRI's Bayan Jabr, the government's Interior minister, is himself a member of the high command of the "Badr brigade".

So far, the "Badr brigade" has not defied too openly the occupation authorities nor Baghdad's instructions - primarily, no doubt, because of the space it was allowed to occupy. But how long will it take before it does?

Other militias, which are also linked to factions involved in the political process, are already in open conflict with the new regime. So, for instance, the fundamentalist allies of Moqtadah al-Sadr who control the provincial council of the Wasit province, on the southern Iranian border, are currently engaged in a power struggle with the central administration over the sacking and replacement of the local police officials appointed by Baghdad. These fundamentalist militias, loosely described as the "Mahdi army" but actually formed by different factions, have been steering clear of any direct conflict with the occupation forces since the siege of Najaf, last summer. But they retain a high profile, both in Baghdad and in most southern towns, sometimes to the point of acting as a semi-official auxiliary police. By the same token, they also implement their own version of "law and order", like for instance in Basra, when they descended on a university students' party, beating up female students to "teach" them the Islamic dress code and shooting one male student dead.

To weigh on the political process, Moqtadah al-Sadr has been using other means as well. The big anti-American demonstrations called by his movement on 9 April, which attracted several hundred thousand protesters in Baghdad, Ramadi and Najaf, were partly designed to show that despite his cautious participation in the political process he remained opposed to the Western occupation. But at the same time they were undoubtedly designed to be a demonstration of strength addressed both to the other factions and to the occupation authorities, showing that if need be he could generate far more support in the streets than in the assembly.

No end to the bloody chaos

Of course, the one aspect that the political process initiated by the West does not address, is the on-going insurgency.

Before the 30 January election, the official line in Western capitals was that the insurgency would peak in the run-up to the election and would subsequently collapse as a result of its success.

However, according to statements made by the US chief of staff, general Myers, the level of insurgent activity has not gone down. His own figures indicate an average of 50 to 60 "incidents" per day, claiming an estimated average of 20 Iraqi lives every day. Since these are official figures, they can be assumed to be an understatement of the reality. More significant is the admission by the same general that the level of the insurgency in April this year is the same as it was in April 2004, that is, right in the middle of the first battle in Fallujah - which says it all!

There is indeed no end in sight to the bloodshed caused by the Western invasion of Iraq. Not only are there a whole number of factions fighting the occupation forces and their Iraqi auxiliaries as a means to bid for a share of political power, but there is no guarantee that others, who are currently involved in the political process, will not resort to the same methods at some later point.

In addition to the human cost of this bloodshed, there are more and more reports of confrontations between members of different minorities who are being forced at each others' throats by terrorist actions. So, earlier this month, riots erupted in Baghdad university between Shiite and Sunni students, following the murder of a Shiite student by an armed gang.

Bush and Blair keep repeating that once a "democratic" regime is in place in Baghdad, it will resolve the problem of the insurgency without the need for the continuing presence of Western troops. If that is the case, why are the US leaders financing the construction of 14 huge military bases in Iraq? Is it not precisely because they do not think for one second that Western companies will be able to operate safely in Iraq? Is it not that they plan to protect the operations of these companies while the population remains subjected to the murderous activities of the insurgents?

But even these plans could be cut short if the time bomb created by the invasion blows up in the hands of the imperialist powers. Contrary to what Blair and Bush claim, the problem in Iraq is not just the insurgency. It is the despair of a whole population reduced to destitution. It is the rival political factions bidding for power, whether they are part in the political process or not, which are prepared to use any possible means to fulfill their ambitions, including building a wall of blood between the country's minorities, under the pretext of defending them against other minorities or against the occupation forces.

It takes all the cynicism of a capitalist politician like Blair to have the nerve to declare, as he did recently, that "Iraq is a better place to live since the invasion." It might become a better place for BP and Shell at some point, but for the Iraqi population it is just plain hell. And the longer western troops remain in Iraq, the more bloody this mess is likely to become.

British troops and all imperialist troops out of Iraq, now!