By Gilbert Achcar
Anyone who happened to watch the message on Iraq in George W. Bush's
State of the Union address to the US Congress on February 3 must
be convinced that the members of both Houses, starting with Dick
Cheney himself, are definitely making the physical effort needed
to sustain their cardiac health. The frenzied rhythm of their standing
ovations equaled indeed the most intensive aerobics. As for seeking
an Oscar award, it was a total failure, the scriptwriters of the
Bush administration being better at soap operas than at good quality
movies, and Bush himself being a pitiful actor, even by Ronald Reagan's
The hypocrisy was at its highest: as was predictable and predicted,
George W. Bush tried to present the Iraqi elections as a great
feat of democracy for which his administration could claim the
main credit. On TV screens, the public could see an Iraqi woman
standing up in front of the two chambers of Congress and raising
her purple finger -- the forefinger in her case, whereas the Iraqi
people had indeed raised their middle fingers at their occupiers,
to borrow Naomi Klein's joke in her excellent piece ("Getting
the Purple Finger," The Nation, Feb. 10, 2005).
In the next few days, the US mainstream media themselves could
not hide the fact that the US had actually suffered a real defeat
with the election. Not only had this election been imposed on
the occupiers by the mass street pressure of the Iraqi population,
after several months of heated confrontation between US Proconsul
Paul Bremer and Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; but the latter
managed to frustrate all attempts by Washington's new Proconsul
John Negroponte to form a single slate of all the participants
in the post-invasion US-appointed Iraqi "Governing Councils."
Washington's and London's stooges were rejected, and Iyad Allawi,
as well as al-Yawar, Pachachi, etc., had no choice but to wage
campaigns on their own, while the Ayatollah sponsored a United
Iraqi Alliance (UIA, its commonly used denomination in English)
friendly to Iran, including the key Shia Islamic fundamentalist
forces as well as a variety of other Shia and non-Shia groups.
Despite the heavy-handed US interference in the electoral campaign,
and the strong financial and political backing by Washington and
London, their stooge Allawi was severely defeated, getting less
than 14% of the votes -- and this despite the non-participation
in the voting of an important part of the Iraqi population, most
of them very much opposed to everything he represents.
The remarkable and impressive mass mobilization among Shias and
Kurds in the safest provinces of the country (on this, see the
appendix below) led to a sweeping victory of the UIA with 48%
of the total vote cast followed by the Kurdish Alliance with 26%,
Allawi's list coming a distant third with only little over half
the votes of the Kurdish slate. (A fast spreading rumor says that
the US got the proportion of votes won by the UIA depressed from
60% to less than 50% in order to prevent them from deciding the
fate of the country.)
Washington's vain hope that Allawi's slate, along with other
pro-occupation forces, could get a number of seats allowing them
to perpetuate the puppet regime with the support of Kurdish members
of the elected Assembly was shattered. Even though the UIA does
not command the two-thirds of seats required for key decisions
-- this according to the Bremer-devised Transitional Administrative
Law, which is contested by the UIA and which Ayatollah al-Sistani
vetoed when Washington tried to inscribe it in the UN resolution
calling for the election -- it is by far the main pillar of the
new Assembly, with more than half its seats.
Washington stands now hoping that it will be able to break the
Shia coalition, through its stooge Allawi, by resorting to all
kind of dirty means from threats to bribery. The trial of strength
between al-Sistani and the occupiers is far from finished. Whatever
the developments in the near future in this Iraqi drama, full
of coups de théâtre and backstage maneuvering, two
issues should be already very clear.
WASHINGTON'S ATTITUDE ON THE WITHDRAWAL OF ITS FORCES
It was absolutely obvious to all observers that the great majority
of Arab voters -- and therefore the overwhelming majority of the
Iraqi population, taking into account the dominant mood of those
who didn't vote -- were and are opposed to the occupation. Actually,
it did not escape most observers' attention that the vast majority
of Arab voters considered their vote to be a political means to
get rid of the occupation. This mood was so compelling that almost
all Arab Iraqi slates included the withdrawal of foreign troops
as a central item of their program. Even Allawi's list did so!
(Their banners stated in Arabic: Vote for Allawi's slate if you
want a strong Iraq free of foreign troops.)
The UIA's electoral program called very explicitly for negotiations
with the occupation forces in order to set a timetable for their
withdrawal. This very same demand has become the central requisite
of the political forces that are staunchest in their opposition
to the occupation: the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (or
Council of Muslim Ulema) and Moqtada al-Sadr's Current. The two
entered an informal alliance to press this demand on the majority
of the elected Assembly.
It is to this same demand again that George W. Bush referred
explicitly when he declared in his State of the Union address:
"We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq,
because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe
they can wait us out. We are in Iraq to achieve a result: A country
that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace
with its neighbors and able to defend itself. And when that result
is achieved, our men and women serving in Iraq will return home
with the honor they have earned."
The choice of words was quite precise and meaningful: "We
will not set an artificial timetable" meant no timetable
at all, since any timetable can only be "artificial,"
whereas the "natural" deadline that Bush hinted at --
"We are in Iraq to achieve a result... And when that result
is achieved..." -- amounts to saying that Washington will
decide unilaterally if and when it will withdraw its troops. The
"result" to be achieved hints at the fact that the new
Assembly and future government of Iraq are not yet "representative
of all its people."
A "democratic" Iraq means, for Bush, a country that
is not ruled by an Iran-like regime combining Islamic fundamentalism,
a measure of parliamentarianism and hostility to US domination
(though Washington is perfectly happy with the Saudi combination
of servility to the US and extreme fundamentalism -- certainly
the most undemocratic and anti-women regime on earth). An Iraq
"at peace with its neighbors" could only mean, in Bush's
mouth, an Iraqi government at peace with Israel, along with the
Jordanian and Saudi kingdoms, with the Iranian and Syrian neighbors
"pacified" according to Washington's standard. Finally,
an Iraq "able to defend itself" means that Washington
will not withdraw (partially) from the country before it is assured
that it is under the control of armed forces that are as much
dependent on Washington as their Saudi and Jordanian counterparts
This section of Bush's State of the Union address, with its stress
on the "result" versus the "timetable," was
echoing very clearly the warning formulated publicly a few days
earlier by two senior veterans of the Republican foreign policy
establishment, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. They had published
together an article in the Washington Post on January 25, on the
eve of the Iraqi election -- the title of which was: "Results,
Not Timetables, Matter in Iraq"!
It is worth quoting at length due to its blunt _expression of
the real strategic considerations guiding Washington: "The
essential prerequisite for an acceptable exit strategy is a sustainable
outcome, not an arbitrary time limit. For the outcome in Iraq
will shape the next decade of American foreign policy. A debacle
would usher in a series of convulsions in the region as radicals
and fundamentalists moved for dominance, with the wind seemingly
at their backs. Wherever there are significant Muslim populations,
radical elements would be emboldened. As the rest of the world
related to this reality, its sense of direction would be impaired
by the demonstration of American confusion in Iraq.
"If a democratic process is to unify Iraq peacefully, a
great deal depends on how the Shiite majority defines majority
rule. So far the subtle Shiite leaders, hardened by having survived
decades of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, have been ambiguous about
their goals. They have insisted on early elections -- indeed,
the date of Jan. 30 was established on the basis of a near-ultimatum
by the most eminent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The Shiites have also urged voting procedures based on national
candidate lists, which work against federal and regional political
institutions. Recent Shiite pronouncements have affirmed the goal
of a secular state but have left open the interpretation of majority
rule. An absolutist application of majority rule would make it
difficult to achieve political legitimacy. ...
"The reaction to intransigent Sunni brutality and the relative
Shiite quiet must not tempt us into identifying Iraqi legitimacy
with unchecked Shiite rule. The American experience with Shiite
theocracy in Iran since 1979 does not inspire confidence in our
ability to forecast Shiite evolution or the prospects of a Shiite-dominated
bloc extending to the Mediterranean. ...
"The Constituent Assembly emerging from the elections will
be sovereign to some extent. But the United States' continuing
leverage should be focused on four key objectives: (1) to prevent
any group from using the political process to establish the kind
of dominance previously enjoyed by the Sunnis; (2) to prevent
any areas from slipping into Taliban conditions as havens and
recruitment centers for terrorists; (3) to keep Shiite government
from turning into a theocracy, Iranian or indigenous; (4) to leave
scope for regional autonomy within the Iraqi democratic process."
What Kissinger, Shultz and company are clearly advocating, and
what the Bush administration is acting on, is that Washington
must prevent the "Shia" majority -- meaning any Iraqi
majority hostile to Washington -- from ruling Iraq. It must remain
in control of the land, by playing on the rivalries between Shia
and Sunnis as well as between Arabs and Kurds, according to the
famous imperial motto of "divide and rule." The stakes
here are all the more crucial for US imperialist interests, in
1) A full political defeat in Iraq -- i.e. losing control over
the country and being compelled to leave it -- will have worse
consequences than Vietnam with regard to US imperial credibility,
its ability to intervene militarily, as well as US economic and
political world hegemony. Due to the oil factor, the strategic
importance of Iraq and the Arab-Persian Gulf area is far higher
than whatever was at stake in Vietnam and the whole of Indochina.
2) Iraq is part of a regional, mainly Shia, "crescent of
crisis" in Washington's -- and Israel's -- strategic view,
which stretches from Lebanon, where it is represented by the Hizbullah
in alliance with Syrian hegemony, to the Alawite-dominated regime
in Syria (the Alawites are an offspring of Shiism), to pro-Iranian
Shia forces in Iraq, to the mullahs' regime in Tehran.
Washington has set itself as a priority the subversion of this
reshaped and refocused version of the "axis of evil."
Its attitude to the events in Lebanon, as well as its increasing
threats against Damascus and Tehran, indicate the context in which
it envisages its role in Iraq. In light of all that, there should
be no illusion whatsoever about the present US administration's
willingness to get out of Iraq. British military sources' affirmation
in late January that Washington and London were devising "an
exit strategy, but without a public timetable" are pure disinformation
meant at appeasing a public opinion increasingly opposed to prolonging
THE NEXT IRAQI GOVERNMENT AND THE OCCUPATION
The discussion in Iraq among political forces of the popular
majority is between those calling for a withdrawal of foreign
troops in the medium-term and those calling for their withdrawal
in the short-term. It is clear that the dominant fractions in
the UIA, probably backed on this issue too by Ayatollah al-Sistani,
belong to the first camp. They believe -- no doubt, genuinely
for most of them -- that they could take advantage of the continued
presence of occupation forces in order to build-up armed forces
under their own control and thus create conditions for a smooth
withdrawal of foreign troops. This view has been expressed by
the UIA's candidate for the key post of prime minister, Ibrahim
It is a deadly wrong view. On the one hand, experience has shown
in an indisputable way that the longer the occupation lingers,
the more the situation in Iraq deteriorates. The occupation breeds
chaos more effectively than any other factor or force, be it foreign
or local. The reason for that is quite simple: the occupation
is deeply hated by the great majority of Arab Iraqis, a hatred
that is aggravated day after day by the clumsiness and brutality
of the occupiers. The withdrawal of the foreign troops, on the
contrary, is the prerequisite for security and order to prevail
and for the effective building of a new Iraqi state.
On the other hand, the occupiers can be legitimately suspected
of fostering forms of chaos and violence, as well as ethnic and
sectarian rifts, in order to perpetuate and legitimate the occupation.
They are actually accused of behaving in this way by the great
majority of the Iraqi people. Most Iraqis believe that Washington
is deliberately sowing the seeds of civil strife between them,
by playing each community against the others. They are convinced
that Washington is purposely letting terrorist groups, like Zarqawi's
and other fanatics, organize their barbaric activities in order
to discredit the legitimate resistance and to foster forms of
chaos that are used as pretexts for the indefinite prolongation
of the occupation.
This is one reason, incidentally, why the staunchest anti-occupation
political forces, i.e. the already mentioned alliance between
the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and Moqtada al-Sadr's
Current, have repeatedly called for a clear distinction to be
drawn between the legitimate resistance against occupation forces
and what they call "terrorism," putting rightly under
this label those who resort to violence against innocent civilians,
whether Iraqis or foreigners, and of course to sectarian attacks.
Washington's Machiavellian practices have reached a new degree
with the contacts it has recently undertaken with the Baathist
wing of the resistance, i.e. the network left over by the Baathist
dictatorship with huge amounts of money and vast quantities of
weapons. This section of the resistance to the US occupation --
most loathed by the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people
because it strives not to liberate the country, but to re-establish
its unbearable tyrannical oppression -- is now negotiating some
kind of deal with Washington.
This development is perfectly in line with the shift in Washington's
plans in Iraq that was illustrated by the replacement of Chalabi
with Allawi. The former set himself up as the champion of "de-Baathification"
and played a key role in Bremer's decision to dissolve the apparatuses
of the Baathist dictatorship -- thus opening the way to one of
two outcomes: chaos and prolonged US occupation, or the building
of a new state based on majority rule. The latter advocated, before
the invasion and after, a collaboration between Washington and
major sections of the Baathist apparatuses (on this, see my article
"Bush's Cakewalk into the Iraqi Quagmire" posted on
May 5, 2020 on CounterPunch).
When Bremer got rid of Chalabi and designated Allawi as head
of the puppet regime, the latter started reintegrating former
major Baathists in the new Iraqi government and armed forces,
thus infuriating the key Shia forces coalesced in the UIA. The
Shia fundamentalist forces possessing militias, i.e. the Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Al-Daawa Party
and al-Sadr's Current, want to purge the new Iraqi armed forces
of reintegrated high-ranking Baathists and merge their own militias
into them -- a nightmarish scenario for Washington. It is clear
that Washington will try to veto any control of these parties
on the "power ministries" and the armed forces and repressive
Faced with the prospect of a clash with the Shia majority, Washington
is determined to use any means necessary to counter that threat,
including an "anti-Iranian" alliance with the Baathists.
After all, had not Washington already entered for many years an
alliance with Saddam Hussein himself against the Iranian regime?
All these developments stress one more time the necessity for
the anti-imperialist left abroad to be very discerning in its
attitude to the very complex Iraqi situation, and to avoid pitfalls
such as an unqualified support to the Iraqi resistance without
the necessary distinctions, and the simplistic belief that the
only legitimate or effective form of struggle is the armed one.
The Shia-Sunni anti-occupation alliance of the Association of
Muslim Scholars and al-Sadr's Current is perfectly right in its
insistence on the withdrawal of foreign troops as the central
demand and necessity in the present situation in Iraq. They are
the political mediation between the pressure of the legitimate
armed resistance to the occupation and the anti-occupation political
pressure expressed by the population and the representatives of
its majority. The combination of these two pressures is crucial
for the liberation of Iraq.
This anti-occupation alliance is right on the national issue.
It doesn't mean however that they are "progressive"
forces. Moqtada al-Sadr's Current in particular is a fiercely
fundamentalist tendency, deeply reactionary on many social, cultural
and gender issues. It is only a testimony to the historical failure
of the left in that part of the world -- the glaring defeat of
the Iraqi Communist Party in the elections is a clear illustration
-- that religious forces, including various brands of fundamentalists,
are dominant in the peoples' struggle against foreign and local
oppression. Fortunately, the very heterogeneity of Iraqi society
imposes clear limits on any project to impose an Islamic fundamentalist
rule in the country.
THE TASK OF THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT
Notwithstanding the position that the next Iraqi government will
express on the issue of the occupation, the antiwar movement abroad
must definitely increase, more than ever, its pressure around
the demand of the immediate and total withdrawal of occupation
troops from Iraq. This is actually not only in the best interest
of the Iraqi people, but even in the interest of the majority
of the new Assembly itself and its representation in government.
The fact is that this majority will be confronted sooner or later
with US pressures of all kind (on this, see the articles by Milan
Rai, "How Washington Plans To Dominate The New Iraqi National
Assembly," posted on Electronic Iraq, Feb. 16, 2005 and the
one by Jaafar al-Ahmar, in Arabic, "Interior and Defense
will determine the influence of the UIA and al-Jaafari's success
in resisting US pressure," published in Al-Hayat, Feb. 24,
2005). It will have to face squarely the fact that Washington
does not want to contemplate any pre-set schedule for the withdrawal,
let alone the prospect of a total withdrawal of its troops from
Iraq. The Bush administration is building a military infrastructure
for the stationing of US troops in Iraq -- in the strategic area
of the oil fields mainly -- for an indefinite period. That the
continued presence of US troops for the last 60 years in both
Germany and Japan is often given as a model by pundits of the
Bush administration is eloquent in this regard.
Therefore, the Iraqi people, and its majority representatives,
stand only to gain from the most powerful pressure exerted by
the antiwar movement abroad for the immediate, unconditional and
total withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq. It is for this
very reason that it is very important that the forthcoming international
day of mobilization against the occupation of Iraq on 19 March
The antiwar movement should also start planning for the perspective
of a protracted struggle to end the occupation of Iraq and to
prevent new military adventures against Iran, Syria or whichever
country Washington will threaten tomorrow. This entails setting
a calendar of mobilizations in order to put the movement in the
long haul perspective, instead of setting each time one single
appointment and leaving the future of the mobilizations undecided.
The global antiwar movement did it once. It can do it again: We
February 24, 2021
Appendix: On the January 30 election
Given the nature of the prevailing security conditions in Iraq,
and the non-participation of important areas of the country, the
turnout of close to 60% of eligible voters was truly extraordinary!
Since the food-rationing lists were used as lists of voters, one
can assume that the given number of eligible voters was equal
to the potential one, if not in excess (much more in any case
than the number of registered voters which is used as a criterion
in most elections).
Such a participation rate of 60% -- in a country where, due to
the imposed curfew, voters had often to walk very long distances
to get to the polling stations, and where several terrorist groups
had threatened to kill would-be voters through snipers, car-bombs
or suicide-attacks, and to murder anyone seen with a purple finger
-- was a remarkable achievement. It was a powerful testimony to
the thirst for democracy of a people that has been subjected for
several decades to one of the most brutal regimes in the world,
and in particular, among the most oppressed sections of this people,
which formed between them the overwhelming majority.
Beginning the day after the Iraqi elections, there has been an
incredibly wide use of the same single article in the New York
Times on the 1967 election in South Vietnam (Peter Grose, "U.S.
Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite
Vietcong Terror," September 4, 2020). Countless commentaries
have quoted this same article, which started: "United States
officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout
in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist
campaign to disrupt the voting."
This analogy is completely false and misleading. To measure the
huge difference between the two situations, searchers of the NYT
archive could have read, for instance, the article titled "Senators
Deplore 'Fraud' In Vote Drive in Vietnam," by Hedrick Smith
in the New York Times dated August 12, 2020 -- three weeks before
the election and Grose's article.
It began: "A dozen Senators from both [US ruling] parties
charged today that the South Vietnamese Presidential election
campaign was being turned into a 'fraud,' 'farce' and 'charade'
by the ruling military junta."
And right these Senators were! It is possible to prove indisputably,
from now available sources like CIA documents, that the 1967 Vietnamese
elections were rigged, imposed by Washington on reluctant US stooges,
Thieu and Ky, and designed to give a veneer of legitimacy to their
dictatorial puppet regime hated by the great majority of the Vietnamese
To draw an analogy with the Iraqi elections imposed on Washington
by the Iraqi masses, where the chief US stooge was defeated and
which were won by a slate led by the best friends of Washington's
worst enemy in the region, defies elementary logic.
Does one also need to mention the huge difference between the
Vietnamese resistance and those forces that tried to prevent the
elections in Iraq by an unprecedented terrorist campaign directed
against the voters themselves?
Gilbert Achcar is the author of The Clash of Barbarisms and Eastern
Cauldron, both published by Monthly Review Press in New York.
Thanks to David Finkel for his kind editing.