Monday, November 06, 2006
One theme has been constant throughout the past three-and-a-half years - the Iraqi government has always been weak. For this, the US and Britain were largely responsible. They wanted an Iraqi government which was strong towards the insurgents but otherwise compliant to what the White House and Downing Street wanted. All Iraqi governments, unelected and elected, have been tainted and de-legitimised by being dependent on the US. This is as true of the government of the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today as it was when sovereignty was supposedly handed back to Iraq under the prime minister Iyad Allawi in June 2004. Real authority had remained in the hands of the US. The result was a government whose ministers could not move outside the Green Zone. They showed great enthusiasm for press conferences abroad where they breathed defiance at the insurgents and agreed with everything said by Mr Bush or Tony Blair.
The government can do nothing because it only came into existence after ministries were divided up between the political parties after prolonged negotiations. Each ministry is a bastion of that party, a source of jobs and money. The government can implement no policy because of these deep divisions. The government cannot turn on the militias because they are too strong. (Patrick Cockburn, quoted here).
The US wanted an Iraqi state that could be tough toward the insurgency (and therefore, increasingly, the Iraqi population), but otherwise dependent and weak: this much is obvious. This is not new: the Iraqi government has always had weak legitimacy, since its foundation as a state, and has therefore appeared as a unidirectional imposition on society. When the power has been dispersed regionally, as it was under the British, it has been especially pliable as well. The authoritarianism and repressiveness of states is historically related to their capacities, their ability to meet some of the demands of the population and generate some legitimacy. Since the occupiers of Iraq have specifically raised the comparison with El Salvador, it is worth noting that the larger scale of state violence in that US client state during the 1980s was in large part due to the state's inability or unwillingness to make reforms that could secure the consent of the rural working class and peasantry to be governed. The US needed the Iraqi state's legitimacy to be weak, and for its accountability to be primarily if not exclusively to Washington, because the reforms they had in mind were going to hurt. The risk of early elections was that the institutions of the state would develop along lines that were answerable to the population, whereas what Bremer and co wanted was for the state to be already developed as an extreme neoliberal entity thoroughly integrated with international (American) capital. They of course wanted to seal up the oil in effective US control, and insulating the basic structures of the regime from the masses was going to be crucial to that. There are good reasons to suppose they wanted the oil prices to spike as well. (There is a precedent for this. During April Glaspie's infamous meeting with Saddam Hussein in 1990, weeks before the invasion of Kuwait, Glaspie told Hussein that there were members of the Bush administration who came from oil states and would appreciate a rise in the price to $25 a barrel. These days the price is closer to $60 a barrel.)
The early efforts to build a state around the exile clients floundered because of the influence of people like Sistani, who pressed for early elections among other things. The CPA argued against this on the grounds that they would need a full census and that other options, such as ID or ration cards, were impracticable. Ironically, when elections finally occurred, they did involve an electoral roll based on ration cards. There was also a problem with relations with the Kurdish north - the US didn't want to alienate such loyal clients as the leaders of the PUK and KDP, but were unwilling to devise schemes to redress the legacy of 'Arabisation' for fears that it would be divisive and alienate increasingly important allies in the SCIRI leadership. It also risked intensifying the insurgency in the Sunni Arab parts of the north. When their offices for arranging property transfers were attacked, the occupiers swiftly and substantially reduced their scope. The Kurdish leaders were instead allowed to surreptitiously send their peshmerga into parts of the north and begin ethnically cleansing residents. Within the Kurdish Autonomous Region itself, created as a dependency with very limited autonomy in 1970 and subsequently transferred to the tutelary control of the US after the failed 1991 uprising, the two main parties continued to run separate administrations. The division between these two parties, expressed in the civil war of the 1990s, has done the occupiers no harm at all, since it renders both of them dependent on outside help - in the 1990s, for instance, they respectively sought the help of Iran and Saddam Hussein. Moreover, both parties increasingly depend on US-Israeli support as they become more unpopular in their respective zones of control, which is why Massoud Barzani's KDP has allowed itself to repress criticism to the extent of trying to imprison a critic of Barzani for thirty years. The early aim of the occupiers therefore was to loosely unite the Kurdish groups with Iyad Allawi's exile group and invest the state apparatus that they were developing in their hands, along with the cooperating SCIRI movement. This was the attempt from the beginning when they dispelled the Ba'athist army and sacked all Ba'ath party members from the state institutions. It was especially so when Steve Casteel and the CIA were building up the Ministry of the Interior with Badr Brigades and former Ba'ath special forces at its core. Each ministry is populated by US 'advisors', of course, so they are politically subordinate to the expanding US embassy, its money, its army and its intelligence operatives. Incidentally, it should be mentioned in respect of the process of "de-Baathification" that it hasn't been suspended or given up or anything, although many assume it has been dropped as a bad mistake. The Higher National Committee for the Eradication of the Ba'ath Party survives under the chairmanship of Ahmed Chalabi, and exerts its power as an autonomous arm of government, thereby granting enormous political leverage to a crucial ally of the United States. They have been able to weed out political opponents at various levels of the state, and would have had almost two hundred candidates banned from the December 2005 elections had it not been for the decision by the US-appointed Board of Commissioners for elections to simply ignore them. The point is that this, like many components of the new Iraqi state reflects a US strategy of patrimonial control: it can't be understood as some vague commitment to eradicating even humble public servants who were forced to be members of the Ba'ath party to get ahead.
Anyway, the US will undoubtedly have anticipated that their destructive policies would lead to increased combat and growing support for their insurgency, but were only unwilling to allow this to happen where it was inessential to their programme, especially if it involved the risk that a sufficient uprising would occur as to risk their inability to control the country: hence the decision to lift the arrest warrant on Sadr only a few days after having issued it. Since then they have negotiated a modus vivendi with Sadr's men based on the unwillingness of the US to get bogged down in another combat and the military weakness of Sadr's forces. Sadr has since become a seriousl political problem for the occupiers and potentially a military one too, hence the recent crackdowns on Sadr city (broken by a general strike called by Sadr's movement).
Similarly, the didn't expect to have to fight in Fallujah, at least not when they did: their operations were ad hoc responses to the dramatic killing of Western contractors, which could partially explain why they were initially unsuccessful in taking the town and were seen off by cheering crowds. One other reasons was that they had to manage the "handover of power" in mid-2004 before they could properly commit to going in: a transition which was effected by promoting figures from within the same clutch of corrupt exiles that the occupiers had themselves already decided were incapable of "reaching out" to Iraqis. This was a contested decision - Lakhdar Brahimi had wanted to appoint a bunch of technocrats until the elections, but both the US government and IGC opposed this and insisted on recycling the same clique of cronies. From this, one might surmise that the US prefers having a weak, unpopular group of bought men, since however stupid and feckless they are they are easily undermined and disciplined where necessary. Once again, the old motif held firm: the government of Iyad Allawi could not retain consent for long, nor govern effectively, but it was prepared to be brutally authoritarian, promulgating curfews, states of emergency, restrictions on movement, imposing military governors where it saw fit and expropriating and spying on whomever it deemed a potential threat. Allawi's rule was strictly circumscribed by the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) which neither he nor his appointed co-governors were empowered to attenuate or overturn. Allawi was feckless and brutal enough to cause no problems for the US when they drove many of the residents out of Fallujah and began to destroy the city in November 2004.
The elections that the US had committed itself to under pressure from Sistani introduced a new problem for the occupiers, however. The TAL would remain in force well after the elections, until the founding of a new constitution in October 2005. This gave the occupiers a lengthy interval to reach an arrangement with the victors in the election that would see the essential parts of TAL, from the US perspective, embedded in the constitution. They would have time to see if Sadr's new position in the national political elite would domesticate him, perhaps surmising that Sadr is a player more than he is an ideologue. They had ample time before the elections to gauge the likely composition of the new government, to issue bribes and promote their favoured candidate (Allawi) as far as possible. And the post-election "wrangling" among leading parties for influence and posts within the administration was probably not an unexpected breathing space either. At the same time, Bush had to assure the Saudi regime that it didn't have to fear a "Shi'ite Crescent" extending from Iran to eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as a result of the elections. I don't know what he told them, but my guess is that the words "Israel", "Hezbollah" and "Gonna Git Eye-ran" came up.
It is estimated retrospectively that 53% of eligible domestic voters turned out (it had been 58%, but higher registration rates later in 2005 produced a revised estimate). Less than fifty per cent of total eligible voters, including those based overseas, turned out. The turnout was low for a variety of reasons: 1) the occupation had destroyed much of the Sunni part of Iraq so that Fallujah, hammered so mercilessly before the vote, sent only 8,000 votes back from a population of 300,000, a turnout of 3% in what one Marine Colonel cruelly observed was "the safest city in the country" after its annihilation; and 2) the Sunni-based resistance had decided that the elections were part of a process of embedding the occupation rather than removing it, and so boycotted it, some threatening to attack polling stations. This strategy would have worked better if it had been coterminously embraced by the Sadrist movement - as it was, it was a gift to the occupiers, literally dramatising the division between the occupiers and resistance as one between the bearers of democracy and a violent, hostile community that, as every fool thinks he knows, was privileged under Saddam.
And the new political set-up was not a problem for the occupiers: the main Shiite representatives were the SCIRI and al-Dawa, who had played ball from the beginning, the Kurdish leadership and a small rump of Allawi supporters. The Sadrists in the UIA were the only potential problem, but were not strong enough to thwart the neoliberal, federalist constitution that the US and its allied finally settled upon. This constitution removed from central government control all but a small cluster of policymaking powers, and asserted that in all cases of dispute, regional law would automatically have priority. Further, the hydrocarbon revenues would be distributed on the basis, not of need, but of the arrangements of governorates from which the oil came. A mere 1.1% came from the four central governorates where most Sunnis lived. Meanwhile, even as the proposals were being discussed and the vote was being readied, the US was conducting savage campaigns in Sunnia areas, such as in Tal Afar.
The fact that this bill was passed at all was largely due to the use of communalist voting: the US on the supporting parties to sell it to a public that in fact opposed to the substance of what was entailed. They also twisted arms and offered a concession in the form of an amendment allowing for repeal of federalist provisions in order to get the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party on board. The federalist constitution potentially weakens the central government, dividing Iraq among a number of independent governorates who can be patronised and played off against one another. Significantly, of course, the very divisions over federalism would contribute to these centrifugal forces in the form of a developing dynamic of civil war (often promulgated by America's allies with the use of the state machinery). It is not plausible that the occupiers were simply unaware of the potentially dramatic way in which forcing this constitution through would impact on sectarian divisions, or that their subordinates were acting in the ways that they were. Civil war of some kind was not merely acceptable, but helpful to occupation ends.
In the second elections, however, many resistance groups had not only called a ceasefire but protected polling booths. They were contemptuous of the "Iranians", those running the Badr Corps ethnic cleansing operations in Sunni neighbourhoods, and successfully diminished their power within the government by securing 87 seats through the Iraqi Accord Front, a mainly Islamist group, and Salih al-Mutlaq's Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, a secular group. But, despite the fact that Sadr's nationalist bloc became the largest group within the UIA, and despite the fact that the Sunni groups opposed federalism, the resulting alignments gave electoral expression to a growing sectarian dynamic. The successful nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister showed that the SCIRI's position had been reduced - but not with the US, who supported the SCIRI's preference for PM, 'Abd al-Mahdi (a SCIRI member and economist who had worked in the interim government and whose father was a minister under the old monarchy). However, the US eventually replaced Jaafari with Nouri al-Maliki, another Dawa party member, because he was seen by Zalmay Khalilzad as being independent of Iran.
Lots of people have got extremely rich, including the allies of the US, such as Chalabi and his business partners. The contracting out system in which the US hires its own biggest companies who in turn keep a large chunk of the money to hire a local Iraqi firm, who in turn hire surrogates who don't in the end build anything, has made segments of American capital very wealthy for practically no cost and no activity of their own. The US-dominated reconstruction institutions have embezzled, mis-spent and stolen billions of dollars. A huge informal economy allows multinational investors to make a fortune out of Iraq's misery, especially as large amounts of oil are secretly and illegally exported out of the country (perhaps up to 60% of all exported oil in 2004). Another aspect of the informal economy is the sex trade, which follows the US military and its auxiliaries wherever they base themselves. The irony is that for all that the repression of women in the new Iraq is seen to be driven by puritanism, religious parties like the SCIRI have actually been issuing licenses to prostitutes so that it is now, for the first time, quite legal: a practical measure to service dollar-rich interlopers and prevent their own moral police from going overboard in their activities. The means by which Iraq is being rearticulated into the global economy seem destined to be those of smuggling and transactions of nebulous legal status. The bombing of the al-Askari shrine coupled with a massive and underreported US air war have made this year in Iraq the bloodiest since the invasion. The US shows no sign of intending to leave, and has sent its paid lackeys such as Talabani and Saleh out to insist that the US must stay for another three years at least (strangely coinciding with a Bush administration announcement that it intends to stay at least until 2010). In such an interval, the already genocidal peaks of violence could wipe out much of the Iraqi population and destroy what infrastructure remains and whatever has been improvised and negotiated in the thick of it. Yet, this year has also seen sustained and intensified resistance to the US, such that American soldiers were unable to retain Anbar, despite everything. The south of Iraq is increasingly insurgent and has registered a trend away from sectarianism among the general population. Segments of the Iraqi state are actively assisting the resistance. Despite the efforts of the US, some of those operating in the weak representative institutions are trying to do some of what they have been elected to do: resist the opening up of the Iraqi market, insist on regulation and keep the state sovereign in relation to the economy. The unions, especially the southern oil unions, have been resisting this too. In its way, if a properly national (and not only nationalist) resistance forms in Iraq, it will be first an anti-colonial movement and second a movement of the Iraqi working class (there really isn't much of a middle class left) against the comprador elite that is grossly enriching itself off the destruction and expropriation of Iraq. It will not be socialist, but it will be anti-sectarian and against neoliberalism. It will be pro-Iraq and pro-survival. Which is about as much as you can ask of any national independence movement.