Early in the New Year, Bush announced proudly, that following the "democratic milestone" marked by the 15 December Assembly elections in Iraq, he intended to withdraw "thousands" of US troops. It soon transpired, however, that the plan was merely to bring US forces more or less back to their pre-election level of 138,000 - which hardly warranted such a boast!
Meanwhile, on the British side, the fact that Blair chose not to say a word on Iraq in his New Year's speech, spoke volumes about his government's intentions concerning the occupation. So, what happened to the planned partial withdrawal considered for next Spring, which had been rumoured in the papers for over a month? In fact, the existence of this plan was confirmed a few days later by Blair's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, during a visit to Iraq - but only to add immediately, that it was "security permitting" and provided the future Iraqi government agreed. And since, according to Straw, "the Iraqi politicians I meet are not pressing the coalition for less action against the terrorists and insurgents, but for more and tougher action", the obvious conclusion was that the Western occupation of Iraq did not seem to be closer to an end. In fact, quite the contrary, since 600 additional British troops are about to be sent to Iraq as we go to press.
Of course, none of the above individuals was prepared either to acknowledge the fact that the "security" situation in Iraq is not better, but worse than ever. None of them mentioned the estimated daily average of 100 armed attacks that occurred across the country over the past year, nor the resulting Iraqi casualties. Yet, for the first time, official figures are available. Although these are likely to be far lower than the reality, coming from an Iraqi government which wants to give the impression that it is in control, they nevertheless give an idea of the extent of the carnage: 5,713 Iraqis killed over the past year, including 4,020 civilians, and 9,378 injured. And this is without taking account of the victims of the occupation forces' particular kind of terrorism, for which there are no statistics. Such figures speak for themselves!
Bush may prefer to swagger, by pretending that "those who want to stop the progress of freedom ["freedom"? What freedom?] are being more and more marginalised". But this is obviously not the opinion of the US Air Force generals, who stepped up their daily air strikes from 25, in August 2005, to 120 in November and 150 in December. Nor, undoubtedly, is it the impression of US soldiers, whose average monthly casualties have been 13% higher in 2005 than during the previous 22 months of the occupation.
Nor do western leaders publicise the fact that if the 15 December election took place virtually without bloodshed, it was not due to any consensus over their so-called "democratic process", but to a unilateral 3-day cease-fire decreed by a majority among the armed groups - after which, terrorist attacks resumed as if nothing had happened.
As to these elections themselves, which both Washington and London present as such a major "democratic" achievement, they are turning out to have involved more corruption, intimidation and irregularities of all kinds, than "democracy" - which was, of course, predictable, given the all-powerful role played by armed militias on the ground. Moreover, the aftermath of these elections is now sliding increasingly into a process of protracted horse-trading, in which politicking and bartering between rival forces are backed up by the murderous, behind-the-scenes thuggery of their henchmen.
Western-sponsored "democracy" at work
More than 4 weeks after the ballot, the results of the 15 December have still to be published. Although unofficial results were disclosed by regional authorities within less than a week, the National Electoral Commission still has to give them its stamp of approval before they can be considered official. At this point, this is not expected to happen before mid-January at the earliest.
This very long delay is partly due to the very large number of complaints of irregularities which have been filed all over the country.
Even during the election campaign, many candidates and their aids were regarded as targets by rival factions. Some were killed, others were taken hostage, others still, chose to withdraw from the election race, fearing for their lives or the lives of their relatives.
The fact that the number of US troops had been increased by 20,000 or so, for the occasion, did nothing to stop these attacks, nor was it meant to. The US and British governments only wanted the election to take place. They wanted to be able to boast of another "democratic success" in front of domestic public opinion and to have what they call a "representative" government with enough formal legitimacy to be portrayed as a credible enough partner. But they did not give a damn about whether the candidates were able to campaign, let alone whether the voters had a real choice.
This is just another case of cynical abuse of the word "democracy" by western leaders to cover up their imperialist crimes. What can the word "democracy" mean in a country where, next to the western occupation forces, real power on the ground is exercised by armed militias, linked to the rival political forces, subjecting a destitute population to their brutal rule?
What was true for the election campaign, was true for the ballot itself. Wherever any particular armed faction was in a position of strength, the ballot results were heavily tilted to its advantage, sometimes in such a crude way that they were not even credible. But by far the most frequent object of complaint after the vote itself, is the virtual merger between the state machinery and the armed militias of the ruling coalition of Islamic Shiite parties and Kurdish nationalists.
In the British-occupied south as well as in the Najaf region, for instance, SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is the largest force in the regional political structures. Its militia, the Badr organisation, controls most of the police. Not surprisingly, the central government has never found anything wrong with this, since SCIRI is one of the two biggest Shiite parties in the ruling coalition and the Interior Minister himself used to be a high-ranking member of the Badr organisation. SCIRI is also one of the main components of the Islamic Shiite "United Iraqi Alliance" list (UIA) which stood in these elections.
In and around British-occupied Basra, there have been numerous complaints about the police putting up posters for UIA lists, hunting down rival lists' election workers and "cleaning up" their posters. Election meetings of non-UIA candidates have been brutally dispersed or banned. The town's loud-speaker system has been used systematically to broadcast UIA propaganda. On polling day, Badr militiamen and police are accused of having prevented known opponents of the UIA list from entering polling stations. And the astronomical scores achieved by this list in some polling stations have raised strong suspicions that the ballot boxes were tampered with while they were under the sole control of the Badr militiamen and their police associates.
Similar situations occurred in other parts of the country, whether it be in Kurdistan, where the state institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by the two Kurdish nationalist parties and their militias, or in some towns in the central part of the country, or district of Baghdad, where either Shiite or Sunni militias are in control. Even the Electoral Commission had to admit publicly that at least 5% of the votes were fraudulent. In many places, voters staged repeated protests until a recount was finally ordered. But it seems that in most cases, the militias still managed to do the recount themselves, leading to more protests and more recounts.
This is why, ever since the 15 December, virtually not a day has passed in Iraq without some sort of street protest against the organisation of the vote and its outcome. Most of these protests have been organised by a so-called "Rejection front", around the demand that the elections should be re-run under the control of election bodies involving all the lists. This front brings together a number of nationalist and religious Sunni-dominated lists as well as the Iraqi National List led by ex-prime minister Allawi, which, although nominally "secular" and "non-sectarian", with the Communist Party of Iraq among its constituents, also includes some Islamic and Sunni nationalist groupings.
In any case, the fact that according to press reports, the protests called by this "front" have attracted thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people across the country, would indicate that discontent has been building up over this issue.
The stakes in the horse-trading
Another reason, and probably the main one, for the official announcement of the election results to be delayed so much is the horse-trading which is now taking place between the main factions.
In the previous Assembly the ruling coalition of the UIA and the joint list formed by the two main Kurdish parties had the 2/3 majority required both to elect the president (who appoints the prime minister) and to be able to block or pass any amendment to the constitution. However, on the basis of the unofficial results of the 15 December, both parties have lost seats compared to what they had in the previous Assembly and they no longer have a 2/3 majority between them.
These losses appear to be due to two main factors. One is that several lists have been formed by ex-members of the two ruling lists and these lists have taken some votes from their bigger rivals. The second factor is a change in the electoral rules: instead of all the seats being allocated to the lists in proportion to their national scores as previously, only 230 seats out of 275 are to be allocated, still proportionally, but on a regional basis. The remaining 45 seats will then be allocated to candidates who did not score enough votes to get elected in the region where they stood. In theory, as this system is aimed at giving some representation to smaller lists, neither of the two ruling lists should get any of these 45 seats, depriving them of any chance to secure the 2/3 majority they want. However, who will get these 45 seats is not very clearly set out in the rules and the Electoral Commission - meaning the ruling coalition - may have some lee-way in allocating them.
In any case, this means that the ruling alliance needs to enlarge itself in order to retain control. In addition, within the ruling alliance, the UIA has even more reason to want to broaden the coalition, in order to loosen its dependency on the Kurdish parties' support. Potentially, the UIA is large enough to lead a coalition without its present partners - something that the Kurdish parties would be unable to do. But this means that it needs to find possible alternatives.
So the horse-trading which began in the aftermath of the election was partly about the UIA and Kurdish lists trying to find reliable partners to join the ruling coalition, either among the lists which will have won regional seats or among candidates who might benefit from the 45 additional seats. Needless to say, this involves a lot of secret manoeuvres, combining bait and pressures, designed to convince individual politicians to join the coalition, even if this means deserting the list on which they were elected, once the election results are proclaimed.
However, another objective of this horse-trading was to try to neutralise the Sunni parties. Whereas most of the Sunni parties boycotted the January 2005 election, they participated this time round. A ruling coalition entirely composed of Shiite and Kurdish parties would provide these Sunni parties with a justification for whipping up support along sectarian lines even more than in the past and with some chance of being successful. This is why a number of voices in the ruling coalition, with the backing of the Shiite religious hierarchy and the western authorities, have issued calls for "national unity" - in other words, a political agreement which would make it possible to co-opt some of the Sunni forces into the ruling coalition.
The main Sunni list, the Iraqi Accord Front, includes the Iraqi Islamic Party - the largest Sunni fundamentalist group. This list won 74% of the vote in the Anbar province (around Fallujah) and came first in three other mainly Sunni regions, including Ninewah (around Mosul). In Baghdad, which accounts for 26% of the regional seats, it won 19% of the vote. In total, on the basis of the unofficial results, the Iraqi Accord Front has won at least 40 and possibly up to 50 regional seats. Because of this and of the influence of the Iraqi Islamic Party on the ground in Sunni regions, the Iraqi Accord Front is an indispensable partner for the ruling alliance, for political agreement involving Sunni forces to have any credibility.
In the aftermath of the 15 December election, however, the Iraqi Accord Front was among the most vocal elements among the forces which launched the "Rejection front", crying fowl over the election proceedings and accusing Shiite prime minister al-Jaafari of depriving the Sunni electorate of its due representation in the new Assembly. There was probably a great deal of demagogy in this claim, which was impossible to verify, since the Front had boycotted the previous election. But it seems that it was the involvement of the Iraqi Accord Front in the "Rejection front", which attracted a large part of the participants in the many protests staged against the election results in Sunni towns.
For the leaders of the Iraqi Accord Front, the issue was not to force a re-run of the election, of course, but rather to capitalise on the feeling of disenfranchisement of the Sunni population in order to make a show of strength in the streets and put pressure on the ruling coalition to make some concessions.
So meeting after meeting has been taking place between the Iraqi Accord Front, on the one hand, and each one of the ruling coalition partners, on the other. These meetings were held secretly at first, and then publicly. And by 2 January, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accord Front announced that the Front had reached an agreement with the Kurdish parties, providing the basis for its participation in a future "national unity" government. In another statement, the leader of the Front recognised for the first time that there was a "historical basis for an autonomous Kurdistan" - a stance which was probably part of the agreement.
What "national unity"?
The future will tell whether these convoluted negotiations do produce this "national unity" government.
For the time being, significantly, no direct negotiations have taken place between the UIA and the Iraqi Accord Front - at least not publicly. The Sunnis' only move closer to the Shiite coalition has been an announcement made by the Front's main component, the Iraqi Islamic Party, that it was discussing the possibility of its MPs forming a parliamentary bloc with the Sadrists (allies and followers of the radical Shiite cleric al-Sadr).
Besides, although it has broken ranks, in practice, from the "Rejection front" by no longer demanding new elections as a pre-condition to its participation in the new National Assembly, the Iraqi Accord Front does insist that further negotiations will have to wait until the verdict of an international commission on the elections' proceedings, which is to start its enquiries in the coming days.
Apart from the hope of getting a few more seats, the Accord Front has another reason to up the ante in the negotiations. Like all mainly Sunni lists, the Iraqi Accord Front has become the target of the so-called "de-baathification" commission set up by the old and crooked US puppet, Ahmad Chalabi, who was, until recently, part of the UIA coalition and interim Oil Minister. The purpose of this commission, set up, apparently, with Bush's personal backing, is to purge former officials of the Baath party from the institutions, political and otherwise. Before the elections, an attempt by the commission to get ex-Baathist candidates disqualified was rebuffed by the Electoral Commission. So, after the elections, Chalabi turned to the courts and won a series of High Court judgments, and the disqualification of over 100 Sunni candidates, including some elected on the Iraqi Accord Front list. No doubt, the Front will want to get this reversed.
There is, therefore, still a lot of horse-trading to come, before the elections results are proclaimed, the new Assembly gathered and a new government formed: Iraqi commentators do not expect this government to be formed before the end of February or mid-March!
But even if the current negotiations do not break down and a "national unity" government is formed, led by the UIA with the participation of the Kurdish parties, the Accord Front and possibly some other minor forces, what sort of "unity" will it really represent?
The main component of this coalition, the UIA, is itself a very fractious alliance. Its composition has changed in the run-up to these last elections, with the departure of groupings such as Chalabi's and with the Sadrist bloc becoming one of its main components, on an equal footing with the former two main factions, SCIRI and the al-Dawa party. This makes the UIA a more homogeneous fundamentalist grouping than before. But its three main factions have very different views of the future of Iraq. SCIRI is in favour of a federal Iraq, comprising four autonomous regions: Kurdistan, a separate region for Baghdad (which would be mixed but dominated by Shiites), a Sunni-dominated Middle-Euphrates and a Shiite south. Al-Dawa is opposed to any concessions to Sunnis, but not to an autonomous Kurdistan. The Sadrists are against any form of federalism and autonomous regions, whether in Kurdistan or elsewhere, but especially in Kurdistan, where they have a strong following among the Turkmen minority. As to what attitude to adopt towards the Sunni parties, only the Sadrist are, and have always been, in favour of a coalition with Islamic Sunnis - the other factions being a lot more dubious about the idea, if not hostile.
This question of the future of Iraq is the first obstacle against which this "national unity" government is most likely to stumble, if only because the Kurdish parties, which have been waiting patiently to get their reward for the role they played in the post-Saddam Hussein era, will want to see at last the autonomy that they were promised. When they do, cracks will inevitably appear again in the ruling coalition, especially as this will mean taking away entirely from Baghdad's control, the substantial oil revenue of the Kirkuk oil fields. Then, new alliances may emerge, already outlined today by the rapprochement between the Sadrists and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which would lead to a break-up of the coalition and a threat of civil war along different lines than the Sunni-Shiite divide, which is apparently dominant today.
But even if this "national unity" survives, on the basis of a compromise whereby all participants accept some form of limited federalism, what kind of regime would come out of an alliance which, numerically would be dominated by a fundamentalist Shiite UIA and a fundamentalist Sunni Accord Front? It would be an Islamic state, where "democracy" is considered pernicious. It would be hell for women, which is already the case under British rule in Basra, where the Sadrists' morale brigade has become an intolerable plague in many areas. Teachers would be jailed to stop them from teaching the wrong subjects (how many have already been killed by armed bigots under western occupation?). Workers who try to organise themselves to defend their social rights would be hunted down as non-believers, or worse, as communists. It would be a return to medieval darkness for the population, all paid for by the bombs and billions of the western imperialist powers.
The rule of the militia against the population
In the short-term, the outcome of these last elections is to reinforce the position of the militias, not to weaken them.
Washington and London may well congratulate themselves about the participation of the Sunni parties in the recent elections. But this means neither that these forces have given up their opposition to the occupation - and they make no secret of that - nor that they are anywhere near giving up their use of terrorism and armed guerilla activity.
The Iraqi Accord Front leaders have stated that much repeatedly, in no uncertain terms. As one of them warned, for instance, in an interview published in an Iraqi newspaper, in late December, "either we obtain our rights of participation in the Assembly, as we deserve, or we withdraw. We will not allow the formation of a National Assembly and will not remain spectators or oppositionists. Rest assured that it will turn into a civil war." There is no clearer way of saying that the Sunni armed groups are keeping their options open. And the series of horrific terrorist attacks which have taken place since the elections, some of which were clearly intended either to speed up the negotiations or to stop them, are there to show how serious such a threat is.
Nothing prevents these rival forces, which are aiming at political power, from using all the instruments available. On the one hand, their armed militias can impose their rule on the population and eliminate political rivals, while, on the other, they can try to play the "democratic" game and even take part in a "national unity" government, in order to build up their political clientele and get their share of the perks of power.
In fact, isn't this precisely what SCIRI and its Badr organisation, the Sadrists and their "Mahdi army", the Kurdish parties and their "peshmergas", etc.., have been doing ever since they formed the "representative" government that came out of the previous elections? Hasn't the Interior minister, the man who was supposed to be the guarantor of the new western-sponsored "democracy" in Iraq, been caught red-handed, when it was discovered that units of his own police, largely recruited from the Badr organisation, ran clandestine jails where "suspects" were held and tortured?
So, despite the self-satisfaction displayed in London and Washington, the militias are still ruling in Iraq and they will carry on ruling. Worse, the main winners in these elections, just as the old participants in the "democratic" process, are all linked to large over-armed militias, whose first aim will be to take advantage of their newly-won political status - at the expense of their less successful rivals, of course, but above all, at the expense of the population.
Of course, this is not something that western leaders will object to. Particularly when, like in Kirkuk in December, the Kurdish security forces - largely recruited among the Kurdish militias - shot at demonstrators protesting against the tripling of fuel prices (a measure demanded by the imperialist institutions in return for a small additional loan to Baghdad). Nor did the imperialist leaders object to jobless demonstrators being shot at in Nassiriyah, a town where the police is controlled by the Badr organisation.
For the western powers, the armed militia can indeed play a very useful role by keeping down an impoverished population which has so many reasons to rise up, in order to settle accounts with those who are responsible for its destitution, at home and in the imperialist world. After all, why would Blair and Bush consider the rule of the militia undemocratic, if it can help to protect the interests of the imperialist capitalist classes?
These rival reactionary factions were unleashed by the invasion of Iraq. Under the cover of the occupation and its fake "democracy", they are now being given the space to build up their fiefdoms and forces. If, in the end, these rival militias launch an all-out bid for power, with the population caught in the crossfire, what will Blair and Bush say? That there is no reason to object to the bloodbath, since the protagonists were brought to power by a duly-approved "democratic" process?