U.S. troops are hostages of Iraq's broken democracy

Iraq doesn't know how to hold an election, and we shouldn't stick around to teach them at gunpoint

Published October 30, 2009 1:31PM (EDT)

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the Iraqi parliament again on Thursday failed to pass an electoral law to govern the holding of the planned January 16 parliamentary elections. The Kurdish delegates refused to come into the parliament building, thereby denying the session a quorum. The Turkmen and Arab delegates had demanded that Kirkuk be treated differently in the legislation than other provinces. (Kurds are now a majority in Kirkuk, and the Kurds wish to annex the province to their Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-independent confederacy in northern Iraq; Turkmen and Arabs consider the majority artificial, the result of Kurdistan-backed Kurdish in-migration, and consider having an ordinary election there a reward to the Kurds for land-grabbing. Kurds maintain that the province has long been theirs and that they are just correcting the "Arabization" or ethnic cleansing and settlement policies of Saddam Hussein, who brought Arab families north to make the oil-rich province indisputably Arab.)

Many pundits are maintaining that the failure to hold parliamentary elections on time will, perhaps, force U.S. troops to stay longer and in greater numbers than envisaged in the Status of Forces agreement.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government arrested dozens of security officials, saying that they were implicated in Sunday's attacks.

Back to elections. Elections in Iraq cannot be held to international standards. There typically are no big public rallies, for fear that they would be blown up by Sunni Arab guerrillas. Candidates can seldom campaign publicly for fear of assassination. For the election itself, the US military declares a curfew and prohibits vehicular traffic for three days. Everyone is reduced to walking to the store to buy bread and other necessities. You can't drive. This measure prevents car bombings of the polling stations.

So why does the US still have 120,000 troops in Iraq? They aren't for the most part doing patrols anymore. They are just being kept in place so that they can swing into action as soon as the election date is fixed, and protect the electoral process from sabotage by bombing.

Is this rationale really a good enough reason to keep so many troops in Iraq? Shouldn't the Iraqi army by now be able to supervise a vehicular curfew on its own? And, why should the Obama administration care if the election is held or not? Saudi Arabia hasn't held any elections lately and it is our ally. The Iraqis were made by the U.S. to have several elections, and they know how to do it if they want to. Why allow their interminable parlays on basic things like an electoral law to hold U.S. troops hostage in the country with nothing much to do for a year?

The parliamentary and provincial elections and the referendum on the constitution were always imagined by the Bush administration as propaganda exercises on behalf of the Republican Party and Neoconservatism. Although the elections have not been meaningless, and a lot of Iraqis obviously express their political spirit through them, they have been highly flawed and artificial. The first, in January 2005, completely excluded the Sunni Arabs because it was not based on voting districts, and it appears to have been stolen by Iran. In some ways that election provoked the Great Sunni-Shiite Civil War. The constitution was rejected by a majority in each of the major Sunni Arab-majority provinces and so is not a national constitution, and it has a strong theocratic overtone. (Read it and weep, Christopher Hitchens.) Islam is the state religion and parliament may pass no legislation contradicting sharia or Islamic canon law. Kurdish separatism is virtually enshrined in it. The Muslim fundamentalists won the December 2005 parliamentary elections as well. Critics accused Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of using intimidation by tribal forces and the advantages of incumbency to skew the results of the provincial elections of January, 2009 toward his Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party. (Some charge al-Maliki with increasingly adopting the techniques and rhetoric of the region's "soft" dictators.)

Iraq is a poor candidate for successful transition to democracy or for social peace. It has a low per capita income if you subtract the notional petroleum income, which is not exactly shared out with the people. Poor countries often fail in their attempt to democratize. It does not have a long-established, respectable business class. It has no effective trade unions to speak of, since the Baath Party had coopted them and then Paul "Jerry" Bremer dissolved them by viceregal fiat. The UN/ U.S. sanctions of the 1990s and the U.S. occupation has pushed literacy down to 58 percent from more like 78 percent in the heyday of the pre-Saddam Baath Party. The country has come to be strongly divided by ethno-religious divisions. Its economy is dominated by a pricey primary commodity, petroleum, and gasoline is easily stolen and fought over, producing militia competition and deaths. . All of these factors have been cited to explain failure at democratization and/or high rates of political violence, and all are present in Iraq in spades.

Me, I don't think the U.S. troop withdrawal should be tied to the successful holding of a parliamentary election, in which U.S. troops are assigned the role of watchmen. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) should be adhered to, and the Iraqis will just have to decide if they want to hold an election or not, and if they do, their troops should supervise it.

I'm as in favor of democracy as anyone else. But I'm a also skeptical that it can be imposed at the point of a gun on a deeply divided society that is at the moment dirt-poor.

The time for elections as U.S. propaganda victory has passed.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Iraq Iraq War Middle East