Why a Good Outcome Is Doubtful Even If Elections Are Held in Iraq





Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California Irvine and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948, He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. He last spent time in Iraq in the early spring of this year.

Since November 2nd I have often heard it said that in an environment where the majority of Americans are divided, cynical and distrustful of their fellow citizens and government, it was natural for them to choose a strong, conservatively religious president with a narrow political vision to lead them. If true, this dynamic does not augur well for the Iraq that will emerge after January 30.

Underlying the decision to confirm Iraqi elections for the end of January are two important calculations: first, that the U.S. military can manage the ongoing violence well enough to permit elections to take place across broad swaths of the country; second, that they will produce an outcome favorable both to the Bush and Allawi administrations. Only time will tell if such optimism is warranted; the plea issued recently by seventeen Iraqi parties to delay elections because of the"threats facing national unity" and"strong political polarization because of sectarian roots" do not augur well for a positive outcome. But even if they are held on or close to schedule, it is almost certain that the elections will symbolize a frustration rather than fulfillment of the freedom, democracy and prosperity the U.S. and its Coalition allies pledged to bring to Iraq twenty some months ago.

In this context, the ostensible"victory" of U.S. forces in Falluja marks a strategic turning point for the United States; not because it has come close to enabling truly democratic elections by destroying the insurgency, but rather because it revealed a deepening erosion of solidarity between Shi‘i and Sunni Iraqis that is the United States’ only hope for maintaining a long-term presence in the country. Such lack of solidarity is in contrast to the mutual aid and support displayed during the Falluja and Najaf invasions of last spring. Had it been translated into coordinated Sunni-Shi‘i resistance -- Sadr City exploding along with Falluja -- the occupation would have quickly become untenable.

Indeed, as the human, moral and material toll of the occupation skyrocketed, most Arab Iraqis, Shi‘a and Sunnis alike, have come to abhor the American presence along with an Allawi government viewed as little more than an American puppet. We don’t have to look far to figure out why: 100,000 deaths and counting, untold billions of dollars of property and infrastructure damage, a barely-functioning health system, massive unemployment, and official corruption that is so pervasive that one of Prime Minister Allawi's senior advisors described the government to me as “Saddam with new faces.” These realities are better recruiting tools for an insurgency than a dozen bin Laden and Zarqawi videos.

In this context sustained Iraqi Arab unity would have meant the defeat of the occupation and an ignoble American retreat from Iraq. But its opposite, intercommunal hostility and even violence, will just as surely mean the defeat of democracy, peace and prosperity. This is the stark choice facing Iraq in the coming weeks, and the U.S. management of the occupation has encouraged both trends since March, 2003: by creating both a weak state open to U.S. influence and a weakened society too torn by internal strife to unite against the occupation.

There are many reasons why the solidarity between Sunnis and Shi‘a, which has historically been tenuous, dissipated in the last six months. To begin with, while leaders of the two communities have exerted great efforts to promoting sectarian harmony (made easier by the fact that so many Iraqi families are a mix of both sects, and even Kurds as well), numerous interviews I conducted while in Iraq earlier this year, seconded by the often insulting and sometimes incendiary language of sectarian media, reveal significant suspicion and even hostility between the two groups since the toppling of the Hussein regime. This was heightened by acts of extreme violence, including suicide bombings that killed more than 150 Shi‘a in Karbala and Baghdad, and the murders of many religious figures on both sides.

But the historical staying power of an “Iraqi” rather than sectarian identity, coupled with the grind of an occupation beset by failed promises and worsening violence, made common cause a logical option among many Sunnis and Shi‘a (especially the poorer Shi‘a who are attracted to Moqtada al-Sadr). Such sentiments remained strong even as the Shi‘i establishment has by and large supported -- or at least tolerated -- the American presence as a way to secure power based on their position as the country’s largest ethnic or religious group.

This calculus has clearly changed in the last few months. Of the many reasons for this, perhaps the most important is that so many victims of the revolt have been Shi‘a, especially the police and army recruits and officers killed in large numbers at least once every week or two. Such attacks, along with the presence of many (perhaps thousands) of foreign and often anti-Shi‘i Sunni fighters in Iraq, have resurrected the Shi‘i anger at the suffering they endured under Saddam’ rule, when Sunnis were generally accorded better treatment communally than their Shi‘i neighbors.

In this situation, as one former high ranking Governing Council official explained to me, “This time around in Falluja the Shi‘i view was, ‘Good, let the Sunnis feel what we felt all those years under Hussein.’" Indeed, if a figure whose ear is as close to the proverbial Shi‘i street as Moqtada al-Sadr remained largely silent as Falluja burned, it seems clear that most Shi‘a have decided that however much they dislike the occupation or Allawi, both are needed to cement Shi‘i political power and defeat an increasingly Sunni insurgency that would be very costly and nearly impossible for the Shi‘a to combat on their own.

Such a sentiment has enabled the U.S. and Iraqi authorities to transform an Arab movement into a Sunni revolt, with Shi‘a and Kurds predominating among the forces fighting alongside the Americans and leaders in both communities stressing the political and religious duty to vote. Of course, Ayatollah Sistani and the Shi‘i establishment might well be playing the United States: using the elections to solidify political power, after which the Americans will be asked -- or forced -- to leave." The worse the violence, however, the less the chance of this happening anytime soon. But also the lesss the chance of peace, reconstruction or a functioning democracy, so far the still-born birthright of post-Saddam Iraq.

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This article first appeared at the blog of Juan Cole and is reprinted with permission of the author.


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