Iraq’s Occupation Election

"We Have You Surrounded—Come Out With Your Votes Up!"

by Larry Everest

Revolutionary Worker #1267, February 13, 2005, posted at

"Some people talk about sovereignty, but what sovereignty are they talking about when American tanks are roaming Mosul streets?"

An imam in northern Iraq

The January 30 election in Iraq is being hailed by the Bush regime and the mainstream media as a triumph of democracy—and proof of U.S. good intentions in Iraq. Paul Bremer, former head of the U.S. occupation, declared, "The Iraq elections this week were a great victory for Iraqis, for democracy and for President Bush’s clarion call for freedom." Bush claimed that Iraqis "have taken rightful control of their country’s destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace."

The actual reality, however, is just the opposite. This U.S.-dominated election was staged and orchestrated to legitimize the U.S. invasion and conquest of Iraq and to cobble together a comprador regime, which would enable the U.S. imperialists to exert long-term control of the country and undercut Iraqi resistance. Part and parcel of a larger plan to forcibly strengthen U.S. domination of the globally strategic Middle East, this election also aimed to legitimize future U.S. aggressions—now being openly discussed in relation to Iran and Syria—in the name of "freedom" and "democracy."

These elections no more reflected the will of the Iraqi people than did the 12 elections held between 1925 and 1958 under the pro-British monarchy—a deeply hated tyranny which the Iraqi people overthrew in 1958. These elections will not give the people power over their future or their country, any more than did the elections held under Saddam Hussein’s rule for that matter.

Many Iraqis and political parties opposed these elections because they sharply oppose the U.S. occupation—and they refused to participate in a political process dominated by the U.S. And, at the same time, there were many Iraqis who voted—though the exact number remains unclear. Many of those who voted are also opposed to U.S. occupation of Iraq, but, especially in Shi’a and Kurdish areas, there were clearly people who thought that by turning out they would assert that their long-suppressed groups were now politically organized and could not be overlooked in whatever arrangements emerge to rule Iraq. And some may have hoped that this electoral process might allow them to exert some influence over their country’s destiny.

Sham Self-Determination

The notion that these elections put power in the hands of the Iraqi people is exploded by dissecting how they were organized, what Iraqi voters did and didn’t know, and how power will now actually be parceled out.

When Iraqis voted, they chose among over 100 different lists of candidates associated with different political parties or trends. The rules for this election and the lists presented to Iraqis were both approved beforehand by the so- called High Commission for Elections, which had been appointed by U.S. viceroy Bremer (who also appointed a commission in charge of Iraq’s media). This U.S.-picked Commission had authority to disqualify any slate the U.S. disapproved of.

Three slates dominated the election:

The United Iraqi Alliance, an Islamic religious coalition of Shiite parties and individuals, sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and comprised mainly of the two largest Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party;

The Iraqi List, headed by U.S.-appointed interim prime minister and long-time CIA asset Iyad Allawi, which includes prominent Sunnis and Shiites who favor a secular government; and,

The Kurdish Alliance, made up overwhelmingly of members of the two main Kurdish pro-independence parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party.

While there are certain political and ideological differences between these groups, and tensions with the U.S. occupiers, all are headed by compradors (pro-imperialist class forces) who are beholden to U.S. imperialism for their current status in Iraq and who favor some form of dependence on imperialism—regardless of what the masses of Iraqi people want and need.

In other words, this was an election where the key issues facing Iraq’s people were not and could not be debated, and where the main views of Iraq’s people were not and could not be expressed. And where the main parties running were those who (one way or another) were willing to "play the game" (for now) with the U.S. occupiers.

For instance, recent polls claim that 82% of Sunnis and 69% of Shi’as want U.S. forces to leave Iraq. Yet the people’s views on this most important question could not be expressed in these elections. Before and after the election, U.S. officials, including Bush, had made clear that U.S. forces were not leaving Iraq anytime soon; meanwhile current Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawer declared it was "complete nonsense" to ask the occupiers to leave—a position seconded by Prime Minister Allawi.

Or take the question of Iraq’s oil. Due in large measure to popular pressure, Iraq’s petroleum industry was nationalized following the 1958 revolution and oil is still closely identified with Iraqi sovereignty. Yet the people’s views on the future of oil could not be expressed in these elections. Meanwhile, top leaders of both the United Iraqi Alliance and the Iraqi List, such as Ahmad Chalabi and Allawi, have been speaking out in favor of opening Iraq’s oil industry up to foreign capital. Antonia Juhasz (AlterNet, January 27) writes that this past December while visiting Washington, DC, Iraq’s current Finance Minister and a top member of the United Iraqi Alliance, stated that such a move would be "very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies."

It seems clear that most Iraqi voters had no idea that such moves were afoot. Bob Herbert of the New York Times (Jan. 31) wrote that half of Iraq’s voters thought they were voting for a new president. Most Iraqis knew neither who they were actually voting for—of 7,700 candidates over 7,000 remained anonymous for fear of being killed—nor the platforms of the various lists. According to Professor As’ad Abukhalil, Allawi’s own newspaper, Al- Sabah, reported that only 7% of Iraqis knew the agendas and programs of the different electoral lists.

Post-Election Wheeling and Dealing—Behind Closed Doors

Seats in the new National Assembly will be apportioned according to the percentage of votes received by each slate. This Assembly is charged with appointing a presidential council, which will appoint a Prime Minister, who in turn will select the government Cabinet ministers and appoint Federal Supreme Court judges. The Assembly will ostensibly assume the day-to-day governing powers and choose a group to draft a new permanent Iraqi constitution.

However, voting for a slate of candidates does not give Iraqis any voice in this process—which is going to begin with backroom wheeling and dealing between the major Iraqi players, with the U.S. playing the dominant role thanks to its 150,000 occupation troops, its control of billions in aid, and the many ways it is molding the new Iraqi state. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies writes:

U.S. domination of Iraq remains unchanged with this election. The U.S.-imposed Transitional Administrative Law, imposed by the U.S. occupation, remains the law of the land even with the new election. Amending that law requires super-majorities of the assembly as well as a unanimous agreement by the presidency council, almost impossible given the range of constituencies that must be satisfied. Chiefs of key control commissions, including Iraq’s Inspector General, the Commission on Public Integrity, the Communication and Media Commission and others, were appointed by Bremer with five-year terms, can only be dismissed "for cause." The Council of Judges, as well as individual judges and prosecutors, were selected, vetted and trained by the U.S. occupation, and are dominated by long-time U.S.-backed exiles. The 40,000+ civilian and military "advisers," including private contractors and U.S. government officials, seconded to Iraq`s ministries and all public institutions will remain powerful; with the new assembly sending new staff to these ministries, the U.S. "advisers" may hold the institutional memory.

The Widespread Resistance to the Elections

In a shameless orgy of support for the war, the U.S. media portrayed the election as an outpouring of the Iraqi people, a veritable celebration of the occupation elections. What the media never made clear was that they were restricted to five polling places in Baghdad, four of them in Shia areas expected to turn out heavily (harkening back to toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, staged for the media shortly after the capture of Baghdad). Initial estimates of 72% participation quickly shrunk below 60%, and it may be weeks before the actual turnout is known.

No international observers were in Iraq to verify the voting process and turnout; the only electoral observers were hundreds of miles away in Amman, Jordan.

Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis, particularly in the Arab Sunni center of the country, boycotted the vote. It has been reported that in Samarra fewer than 1,400 of the town’s 200,000 people voted; in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, the turnout was barely 10%; some 1,700 people voted in Ramadi, a city of nearly 400,000; in Fallujah, a city of 150,000, some 8,000 reportedly voted.

Government and media mouthpieces for the ruling class—including New York Times columnists Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks—called those opposing the vote "fascists"—this from people who champion the U.S. imperialists’ "right" to wage war on whomever they choose whenever they choose in order to rule the whole world by violence!

Opposition Iraqi voices were overwhelmingly censored in the bourgeois press, but when they managed to break through thanks to alternative media outlets, it was clear they were motivated by deep hatred for the brutal and unjust occupation of their country. For instance, Iraq’s Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars stated the vote "lacks legitimacy because a large portion of these people who represent many spectra have boycotted it."

Ghazwan Al Mukhtar, a retired engineer in Baghdad, told Democracy Now (Jan. 31):

I do not believe that the election is legitimate, the election is held under the occupation. The occupying power has modified the basic rules in Iraq as to who is an Iraqi and who is not. The election was shoved down our throat because all the major parties, including Allawi’s party, requested that the election be postponed...if the Iraqi parties wanted to postpone the election, they should have been able to do so without the interference of the United States government....a lot of people have boycotted it. The Sunnis have boycotted the election. Some of the Shias boycotted it. Muktadar Al Sadr faction boycotted the election. Al Khalaf faction boycotted the election. There is a resistance to the occupation in Iraq. This resistance stems from the fact that our life has been, for the last 22 months, deteriorating day and night and we have not seen any improvement in our condition for the last 22 months, nor that anything has been reconstructed.... The shocking thing is that the conditions after 22 months of occupation is a lot worse in every single aspect of life than with Saddam Hussein, after 12 years of sanction.

One 25-year-old student of Islamic theology in Mosul, told reporters for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( that he was organizing an election boycott because it would lead to permanent U.S. military bases in his country. "I will celebrate holding elections but only after the withdrawal of the last U.S. tank," he said as he distributed leaflets to people attending Friday prayers. "I can’t accept holding elections under the foreign occupation."

Will This Save the U.S. Plans for Domination?

The U.S. still has the upper hand in Iraq, and it’s possible that the election may temporarily strengthen its grip. But it could have the opposite effect, creating new difficulties and roadblocks—potentially very serious ones—for the imperialists. It is worth remembering here that after previous "turning points" declared by the U.S. occupiers—the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the "handover" of power in June 2004, and the leveling of Fallujah in November 2004—the Iraqi resistance in Iraq has only intensified. A Knight Ridder analysis just prior to the election summed up:

"Iraqi insurgency growing larger, more effective....The United States is steadily losing ground to the Iraqi insurgency, according to every key military yardstick.. `All the trend lines we can identify are all in the wrong direction,’ said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution... `We are not winning, and the security trend lines could almost lead you to believe that we are losing."

In fact, these elections themselves are an illustration of how things have not gone according to U.S. plans in post-Saddam Iraq. The initial plan had been to put pro-U.S. exiles into power (like the CIA’s one-time instrument Chalabi); when this proved too unpopular, the U.S. then handpicked an Iraqi Governing Council to write a new constitution. This too proved unworkable, leading Bremer to attempt to create a caucuses of handpicked elites to write a constitution. In the spring of 2004, with the Sunni insurgency growing and the Shia leadership threatening to turn against the occupation, the U.S. agreed to the elections Ayatollah Sistani and others were demanding. However, Bremer and company decided the only way elections could be held by January 30, 2005 would be to apportion seats in a new Assembly based on nationwide vote totals, not by districts and provinces. The result of this may well be the near complete disenfranchising of the Sunni Arab center of Iraq in the new neocolonial regime in favor of organized parties and religious forces among the Shia and Kurdish populations (comprising roughly 60% and 20% of Iraq’s total, respectively). And that alienation could well lead to the deepening of the anti-occupation insurgency, which in many places is led by the historically secular Ba’ath Party and rooted among Sunni people..

There are many other cross-cutting fault lines running through the "new" Iraq as well—including future relations with neighboring Iran. Early returns show that 72% of the 1.6 million votes so far counted went to the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa, religiously based parties supported by Iran, with whom they were allied during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Allawi’s secular list received only 18%.

This raises two troubling possibilities for the U.S. occupiers. One is the strengthening of Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, which may be one factor prompting the growing threats of a U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic.

The other is that calls for an Islamic constitution and government, now being voiced by prominent Shias, raise the possibility, first, that the new regime would be a giant leap backward in terms of the status of women in Iraq. Some clerics argue that Islam should govern matters as marriage, divorce and family inheritance. (Under Shariah law, for instance, daughters receive half the inheritances of sons.) Others argue that Koranic law should be the foundation for all legislation.

Prof. Juan Cole (Feb. 1) explains that instituting Shariah law even in matters of personal status "would typically deny divorced women any inheritance, give girls half the inheritance received by their brothers, restrict women’s right to initiate divorce, restrict women’s appearance in public, and make the testimony of women in court worth half that of a man."

The other impact such a religious order could have would be to deepen the alienation of large parts of Iraq’s population which tend to be more secular, including especially among the Sunni Arabs and Kurdish people (who include many Sunni Muslims but also believers of other religions).

In fact, the contradiction between the Kurds and Iraq’s Arab populations—both Sunni and Shia—may become the country’s deepest faultline. Since the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds—under a U.S. military umbrella—have been basically running an autonomous mini-state in Iraqi Kurdestan. While not widely publicized, during the recent election, in addition to voting on the Kurdish slate for the new National Assembly, the Kurdistan Referendum Movement asked voters if they wanted an individual homeland, free from Iraq. It reportedly passed 11 to 1. This could both serve as leverage in coming negotiations over the form of the new government, and create an out if things didn’t work out for the Kurds. Currently, the interim Iraqi constitution (written under Bremer and company) and three Iraqi provinces (e.g., the Kurdish areas) can veto any provisions of a new constitution. The Shia leadership has been deeply opposed to this veto power.

Adding fuel to all this fire are Kurdish efforts to strengthen their hand in Kirkuk, traditionally the center of Iraqi Kurdish life and home to 40% of Iraq’s oil wealth. Kurdish control of Kirkuk could create the basis for an independent state, and neighboring Turkey—which has a long history of brutally oppressing its Kurdish population, which is the largest in the Middle East—has already condemned the U.S. for not reigning in Kurdish ambitions and warned that it will not tolerate an independent Kurdestan in Iraq. "Some people are looking the other way while mass migration (of Kurds to Kirkuk) takes place," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan told the Wall Street Journal. "This is going to create major difficulties in the future."