Introspection is not the purpose of this occasional column, but a moment of it seems appropriate in the wake of the election recently held in
I had not thought that, two years after Saddam Hussein’s fall, such a powerful current of longing could well up. I did not believe that an election with 7,000 candidates, most of whose identities were secret, could inspire such enthusiasm. Above all, I did not believe that so many Iraqis, whose dislike of the American occupation is wide and deep, would seize an opportunity provided in part by that same occupation to express their desires with such clarity and force. On the contrary, I thought that national pride — one of the most powerful forces of modern times — would prevent it.
But express themselves the voters did, with compressed, elemental eloquence. What impressed was not turnout, which remains unknown, especially in Sunni areas; it was the demeanor and comments of those who did vote. A woman in
There was, I confess, a momentary temptation for someone like me, who has opposed the war from the start and believed it would lead to nothing good, simply to scant the importance of the event, or react to it defensively, or speed past it on the way back to an uneasy confirmation of previous views. But the impulse passed. After all, hadn’t I been irked that the war’s promoters, including the President, had refused to admit a mistake when they had not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when they had failed to foresee the insurgency that soon broke out after Baghdad was taken, when American forces, encouraged by memos penned at the top levels of the Administration, had committed widespread acts of torture? More important, when masses of ordinary people act with courage to express deep and positive longings, shouldn’t one give them their due? But most important of all, wasn’t full acknowledgment of the magnitude of the event necessary for any real understanding of what might happen next in Iraq?
The first question for me, therefore, has to be how a decidedly popular election occurred under the auspices of a decidedly unpopular occupation. That unpopularity cannot be doubted. It was manifested in opinion polls (for instance, in May a poll taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority found that 92 percent of Iraqis saw American forces as “occupiers” and only 2 percent saw them as “liberators”), but also in the statements of most Iraqi leaders not actually participating in the interim government approved by the occupation. The most significant of them were leaders of the Shiite Muslims, who make up almost two-thirds of the population in
The story of this reversal perhaps began in January 2004, when the spiritual leader of the Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, announced his opposition to an indecipherably complex American plan to hold eighteen regional caucuses, which would then choose a national assembly. Sistani demanded direct elections for the assembly instead. He may or may not have been a true believer in democracy, but he certainly understood that in any democratic vote Shiites would win power, reversing several centuries of rule by the Sunni Muslims, who make up only about 20 percent of
The Bush Administration balked. Sistani insisted. He made a show of strength by summoning hundreds of thousands of Shiites to demonstrations in
Having brought the Administration to heel, Sistani next faced a challenge from within Shiite ranks. In spring 2004, the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launched an armed insurrection against the occupation. Sistani stood by while American forces badly bloodied Sadr’s forces in several weeks of fighting in the holy Shiite city of
Still another potential challenge to Sistani’s plan was the largely Sunni insurgency, heavily concentrated in the city of
Sistani’s stance toward the occupation had now become at least implicitly equivocal. Having defied the
Then yet another danger to the election took shape, this time in the form of bloody attacks largely by Sunni insurgents upon Shiites specifically, including one of Sistani’s aides. Sistani acted once again to defend his plan — this time imposing a remarkable and impressive restraint on his followers, who did not retaliate. Had they done so, he certainly knew, the country might have descended into civil war, and the elections would have been ruined. The Sunnis could still boycott the voting, and the great majority of them reportedly did, but they failed to stop it entirely.
In sum, the election on January 30 — conceived by Sistani, forced upon a reluctant Bush Administration by Sistani, and defended by Sistani (in concert with American forces) against both Shiite and Sunni insurrections — was first and foremost a kind of Shiite uprising. It was an astonishingly successful revolt against subjugation and repression that Shiites have suffered in
The results of the election, though incomplete at this writing, confirm that it was above all a Shiite event. As expected, Shiite and Kurdish turnout was reportedly high, Sunni turnout low. The joy the world witnessed at the polling places was mostly Shiite joy. (If Kurds were less effusive, it was because they had long been the de facto masters of their territory.)
What the election was not was a decision by “the Iraqi people.” It’s not even clear that at this moment there is such a thing as the Iraqi people. Opinion among scholars and others is divided on the point.
It’s significant — and discouraging — that Sistani’s first act after the election was to signal through aides that all Iraqi law should be founded in Islamic law. For all his tactical sagacity, he may turn out to belong to the long list of leaders able to win power but unable to found a just new order. All the parties express a desire to avoid civil war, but there is a distinct possibility that what the vote strengthened was not “the Iraqi people” but each of the subgroups. The high vote of the Shiites and the low vote of the Sunnis may have carried the same message: When all is said and done, we are more faithful to the interest of our own group than to a unified
It’s in this radically unpredictable and rapidly developing context that the question of the future of the American occupation must be considered. There can be no doubt that the election was a rebellion by the Shiites against their traditional oppressors in
Since the invasion, Americans have been absorbed in the debate over whether
The rudiments of a new governing authority in
Jonathan Schell is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.
Copyright C2005 Jonathan Schell
[This article will appear in the upcoming issue of The Nation Magazine and was posted on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]