P. Diddy announced on the weekend that his “vote or die” campaign will live on. The hip-hop mogul’s voter-registration drive during the U.S. election was, he said, merely “phase one, step one for us to get people engaged.”
Fantastic. I have a suggestion for phase two: P. Diddy, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the self-described “coalition of the willing” should take their chartered jet and fly to Fallujah, where their efforts are desperately needed. But first they are going to need to flip the slogan from “vote or die!” to “die, then vote!”
Because that is what is happening. Escape routes have been sealed off, homes are being demolished, and an emergency health clinic has been razed — all to prepare the city for January elections. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S.-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi explained that the attack was required “to safeguard lives, elections and democracy in Iraq.”
With all the millions spent on “democracy-building” and “civil society” in Iraq, it has come to this: If you can survive attack by the world’s only superpower, you get to cast a ballot. Fallujans are going to vote even if they have to die first. And make no mistake: They are Fallujans under the gun. “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Fallujah,” Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Gareth Brandl told the BBC. Well, at least he admitted that some of the fighters actually live in Fallujah, unlike Donald Rumsfeld, who would have us believe that they are all from Syria and Jordan. U.S. Army vehicles, meanwhile, are blaring recordings forbidding all men between the ages of 15 and 50 from leaving the city, suggesting that at least a few Iraqis are among what CNN now obediently describes as the “anti-Iraqi forces.”
Elections in Iraq were never going to be peaceful, but they didn’t need to be an all-out war on voters, either. Mr. Allawi’s “rocket the vote” campaign is the direct result of a disastrous decision made a year ago. On Nov. 11, 2003, Paul Bremer, then chief U.S. envoy to Iraq, flew to Washington to meet President George W. Bush. The two men were concerned that, if they kept their promise to hold elections in Iraq within the coming months, the country would fall into the hands of insufficiently pro-U.S. forces.
That would defeat the purpose of the invasion, and it would threaten Mr. Bush’s re-election chances. So the men hatched a revised plan: Elections would be delayed for more than a year; meantime, Washington would hand-pick Iraq‘s first “sovereign” government. This would allow Mr. Bush to claim progress on the campaign trail, while keeping Iraq safely under U.S. control.
In the U.S., Mr. Bush’s claim that “freedom is on the march” served its purpose, but, in Iraq, the plan led directly to today’s carnage. Mr. Bush likes to paint the forces opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq as enemies of democracy. In fact, much of the uprising can be traced directly to decisions made in Washington to stifle, delay, manipulate and otherwise thwart the Iraqi people’s democratic aspirations. Yes, democracy has genuine opponents in Iraq, but before Mr. Bush and Mr. Bremer decided to break their central promise to hand over power to an elected Iraqi government, these forces were isolated and contained. That changed when Mr. Bremer returned to Baghdad and tried to convince Iraqis that they weren’t yet ready for democracy.
Mr. Bremer said the country was too insecure to hold elections and, besides, there were no voter rolls. Few were convinced. In January of 2003, 100,000 Iraqis peacefully took to the streets of Baghdad, with 30,000 more in Basra.
Their chant was, “Yes, yes elections. No, no selections.” At the time, many argued that the lists from the Saddam Hussein-era oil-for-food program could serve as voter rolls. Mr. Bremer wouldn’t budge. Shamefully, the UN backed him.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Hussain al-Shahristani, chairman of the standing committee of the Iraqi National Academy of Science, accurately predicted what would happen next. “Elections will be held in Iraq, sooner or later,” he wrote. “The sooner they are held, and a truly democratic Iraq is established, the fewer Iraqi and American lives will be lost.”
Thousands of lost Iraqi and American lives later, elections are scheduled to take place with part of the country in the grips of yet another invasion and much of it under martial law. As for voter rolls, the Allawi government is planning to use the oil-for-food lists, as was suggested and dismissed a year ago.
So the excuses were lies: If elections can be held now, they could have been held a year ago, when the country was vastly calmer. But that would have denied Washington the chance to install a puppet regime in Iraq, and possibly prevented Mr. Bush from winning a second term.
Is it any wonder that Iraqis are skeptical of the version of democracy being delivered to them by U.S. troops, or that elections have come to be seen not as tools of liberation but as weapons of war?
First, Iraq‘s promised elections were sacrificed in the interest of Mr. Bush’s re-election hopes; next, the siege of Fallujah itself was shackled to these same interests. The fighter planes didn’t even wait an hour after Mr. Bush finished his acceptance speech to begin their attack on Fallujah, and bombed the city at least six times through the next day and night.
The U.S. soldiers’ first goal in Fallujah was to ambush the city’s main hospital. Why? Apparently because it was the source of the “rumours” about high civilian casualties the last time U.S. troops laid siege to Fallujah, sparking outrage in Iraq and across the Arab world. “It’s a centre of propaganda,” an unidentified senior U.S. officer told The New York Times. Without doctors to count the dead, the outrage would presumably be muted; alas, attacking hospitals has sparked fresh outrage.
The Times reported that the Fallujah General Hospital was easy to capture, as the doctors and patients put up no resistance. But there was one injury, “an Iraqi soldier who accidentally discharged his Kalashnikov rifle, injuring his lower leg.”
I think that means he shot himself in the foot. He’s not the only one.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows.