Playing make-believe

A TV station ban, 160,000 foreign troops, trumped-up charges: Is this the free society Iraqis were promised?

By Jonathan Freedland
Published August 11, 2004 2:46PM (EDT)

They are falling like skittles in a bowling alley. One by one, the arguments for the 2003 invasion of Iraq keep tumbling. First to go was the big one. War was necessary because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It turned out there were none. Next was the insistent promise that a U.S.-led conquest of Baghdad would end completely and forever human rights abuses committed in hellholes such as Abu Ghraib jail. Except we saw the pictures and realized that abuses had continued even in Abu Ghraib itself -- albeit under new management.

The last week has sent one more Iraqi ninepin wobbling. It is the hope on which Tony Blair has had to rest his case for war, the hope that Iraq is on its way to becoming a unique entity in the Arab world: an open, democratic society. There may be no WMD and the occupation may be a mess, Blair seems to say, but Iraq will be a democracy -- and that alone will make all the pain and bloodshed worthwhile.

Now this justification is looking as shaky as the others. Of course, Iraq wasn't built in a day -- and rooting a democracy in soil dried and hardened by decades of dictatorship will be no easy, instant task. The most one can expect are gradual, baby steps in the right direction. But even those are not coming.

Liberal hearts will have sunk at last week's announcement that Iraq is to restore the death penalty. But, OK, they understand. Iraq is not Sweden; the Middle East is a tough neighborhood. Everyone else -- and Iraq's American sponsor -- has capital punishment for murderers, so why would Baghdad be any different? Except Iraq will execute not only those convicted of murder but anyone found guilty of either distributing drugs or the handily catch-all crime of "endangering national security." That sounds like an executioner's charter. Any unwelcome political activity could be branded a danger to national security, with the irritant duly put to death.

A fledgling democracy would also be making a show of its respect for the rule of law, its understanding that the justice system is not an instrument of political control. Yet Monday brought word that warrants had been issued for the arrest of two members of the Chalabi clan: Ahmed is wanted on charges of counterfeiting money, while nephew Salem is a murder suspect. Now, few outsiders will have much sympathy for either of these characters. Ahmed is a convicted fraudster who spun so many tall tales to his Pentagon patrons -- convincing them that the Iraqis would welcome "liberating" U.S. troops with hugs and flowers -- that even the Dick Cheney club of neocons has broken from him. Yet it is surely troubling that Chalabi and his nephew should be indicted on the same day, while both are out of the country. (The counterfeiting charges look especially tenuous, with one report estimating the sum of money involved at as little as $2.) To the naked eye, this looks a lot like an attempt to keep two powerful players out of Iraq. Which of their many rivals might be behind the move is hard to guess, but that the judicial process is being manipulated for political ends seems beyond doubt.

Perhaps the greatest symbolic gesture has come with the weekend announcement that Al-Jazeera is to be banned from operating in Iraq for at least one month -- and longer unless a government-approved panel of monitors decides its coverage has "improved." Falah al-Naqib, the Iraqi interior minister, said he was closing the channel's Baghdad operation because the broadcaster aired "things that harm the image of Iraq and the Iraqis."

Al-Jazeera is not perfect; it can be lurid and overheated. Some say it sits somewhere between the BBC and the heavily slanted Fox News. Still, it is the nearest the Arab world has to an independent media organization of heft. In the words of Kenton Keith, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, where the channel is based: "For the long-range importance of press freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have for the West, you have to be a supporter of Al-Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes."

Optimists say that free speech is beginning to take root in Iraq. They cite the success of Radio Dijla, aiming to be Baghdad's answer to 5 Live, with phone-in shows and constant debate. But the crackdown on Al-Jazeera does not suggest a government with too robust a grasp of the principle of a free press.

Above all, and despite the constant references to an "Iraq now run by Iraqis," not one of the people currently in charge was chosen by compatriots. An invasion some 16 months ago aimed at bringing democracy to Iraq has so far yielded next to nothing in the way of voting. The first American proconsul, retired Gen. Jay Garner, wanted early local ballots; what he got was an early sacking from Washington. In June of last year, U.S. military commanders canceled plans for local polls, so that now, in most places, everything is on hold until national elections promised in 2005.

Britain and America would doubtless insist that, if these democratic deficits exist, then they are the choice of the Iraqis themselves. After all it is they who, since the end of June, have been "sovereign," in the form of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his interim regime. But we have grounds to be skeptical. For Allawi and his unelected ministers act a lot like what used to be called stooges or puppets -- their minds concentrated by the presence of 160,000 foreign troops on their soil.

Take the ongoing American onslaught on Najaf, which has already claimed the lives of more than 300 fighters, according to contested U.S. figures. Does the Iraqi regime oppose this killing by a foreign army of its citizens? No. The official line is that Baghdad "invited" the U.S. to crush forces loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Was this not the language of every puppet Soviet satellite, always "inviting" Moscow in to crush its own people?

So it's not overly cynical to see the American hand behind each of these democratic lapses. Clamping down on Al-Jazeera? America has tried to do that itself, more than once. Why, it was only in April that Colin Powell had "intense and candid" discussions with his Qatari counterpart, seeking to whip Al-Jazeera into line. Delayed elections? That's clearly been Washington's preference, too.

Bit by bit, the intellectual foundations of this war are crumbling to dust. No WMD; no outright end to human rights abuses; no democratic breakthrough. Even the most basic facts of the war are now in dispute -- including the continued American-British attempt to pretend it's over. The showdown in Najaf, with civilians urged by American troops to flee yesterday as if in preparation for a bloody climax, is proof of that. The trouble in Basra and the struggle for control of the oil fields confirm it further. What the last week proves is a bleak truth: This war is not over -- nor has it achieved any but the baldest of its stated aims.

Jonathan Freedland

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