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Socialism Today 128 - May 2009

Iraq’s latest elections reopen old wounds

THE MESSAGE from mainstream western media seems to be that Iraq is moving, in general, in a positive direction. Provincial elections in January proceeded without major disruption and a general election is planned for December. British troops are withdrawing and the timetable for US withdrawal has been put in place by president Barack Obama. Forty countries are now represented in Baghdad, where international agencies such as the United Nations and Red Cross operate.

But that masks the fragile base on which it all rests. Iraq today was forged in the heat of the US/British invasion of 2003, and fundamental issues remain unresolved. The US-led invasion, seconded by Britain’s Blair/Brown government, was a bungled mission. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, millions displaced. Thousands are still imprisoned without any judicial process. It wrecked what remained of Iraq’s infrastructure, destroyed its administrative and social structures, putting nothing in their place. It unleashed a brutal, sectarian civil war. The neo-con delusion was that the invasion would be greeted as a liberation, a puppet government could be installed quickly, Iraq’s oil would flow, paying for reconstruction, and reaping vast profits for western, especially US, corporations while securing cheap oil on the world markets.

It took years before the penny dropped. Eventually, however, even George W Bush’s administration could no longer ignore reality. From 2006, it began to change its approach, reversing the craziest neo-liberal policies, such as dismantling the state-owned enterprises, which had cut workers’ pay by 60%. Nonetheless, progress has been negligible, with mass unemployment, intermittent electricity, broken sewage and sanitation systems the norm.

Meanwhile, sections of the Sunni insurgency began fighting against the most extreme groups, particularly Al Qaida in Iraq, which was attempting to impose its authoritarian control. These Sunni groups became known as Sahwa (Awakening Councils), and were co-opted to work with the US and Iraqi armies. Their members were paid $300 a month to stay on side, with the promise of future state employment on higher pay. Alongside this development, the US military launched the surge, sending in an additional 30,000 troops against Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi army of the anti-occupation, Shia Islamist, Moqtada al-Sadr.

This dramatic change in strategy has had an effect in curtailing the most extreme violence. When compared to the height of the savage repression by US, British and other ‘coalition’ forces and mass sectarian killings, the situation today may appear relatively calm. Nonetheless, car and suicide bombings, and extra-judicial murders, are commonplace.

Against this background, claims of success must be viewed sceptically. The provincial elections of 31 January, indeed, have been heralded as a triumph. In contrast with previous elections in 2005, candidates could be identified individually, and more than 14,000 competed for 440 council seats.

The results, however, have reopened all the festering sectarian wounds, with wrangling over who will take top positions, and parties and individuals struggling to form coalitions. The provincial councils control security and local budgets, provide services and allocate jobs, real power over people’s lives and a way of rewarding supporters and punishing rivals. These power struggles are preparing the ground for December’s elections.

What is missing is the voice of the working class and poor. Political power rests with the people at the top. It is the interests of the elites of the different ethno-religious groups which dictate, with regional and world powers, such as Iran and US imperialism, vying for the roles of king-maker and puppet-master. As yet, no independent working-class based party or movement has been able to rise up and cut across divisive, corrupt sectarian interests.

Of Iraq’s 18 provinces, 14 held elections. There were no elections in the three Kurdish provinces or Kirkuk city. Turnout was particularly high in Sunni provinces. In Salaheddin, Saddam’s home province, 65% voted, against a national average of 51% (down from 55.7% in 2005), indicating a big drop in Shia participation.

There has been a seismic shift in the composition of the councils, especially in predominantly Sunni areas, because the vast majority of Sunni boycotted the 2005 vote, either in protest or fear. The boycott gave Shia and Kurdish parties disproportionate power in provinces such as Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh (which includes the north’s largest city, Mosul), all with substantial Sunni populations, and which have now seen a sudden increase in the number of Sunni councillors.

US-backed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Dawa party toned down its Islamist policies in the elections, putting together a State of the Law coalition which emphasised improved security. It came top in eight of the nine predominantly Shia southern provinces, won 38% in Baghdad and 37% in the important southern city of Basra. Despite this vote, in the south it has had to cobble together deals with other Shia parties to share control of councils. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly known as SCIRI) failed to come top in a single province. Al-Sadr’s supporters did well in the southern provinces of Dhi Qar and Maysan, and came second in the capital.

In Diyala, 40 miles north-east of Baghdad, Shia parties saw their 20 seats reduced to five, with Sunni dominant with 15 seats, in an area where the Sunni insurgency continues. In Nineveh, another mixed province forming part of the 300-mile disputed northern border with the Kurdish region, a hard-line anti-Kurdish group, al-Hadba (an Arabic name for Mosul), won control of the council with 49% of the vote. The second-largest bloc was won by Yazidi candidates allied and ethnically linked to the Kurds but with their own specific interests.

Al-Maliki’s call for strong central government, an attempt to court the resurgent Sunni parties, has also brought him into head-on collision with the Kurdish parties. The Kurdish region has been effectively autonomous since the end of the Gulf war in 1991 and Kurdish parties want control of the rich oil reserves in the north, something the central government does not want to relinquish.

One of the most intractable problems is Kirkuk, just outside the official Kurdish region but which is claimed by the Kurds. The Kurdish parties have pursued a policy of boosting the Kurdish population of the city, exacerbating tensions with Arabs who were themselves brought in by Saddam to weaken Kurdish control in the 1970s. This went alongside the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish villages and the displacement of thousands of people. In Kirkuk, the newly-formed Iraqi Kirkuk Bloc intends to deploy Awakening Councils to resist this process.

Given the bitterness and intransigence of the elites on both sides, this is stoking up a mass of unstable, flammable material which could explode into a new round of sectarian violence at any time. In January, the US military increased its strength in Kirkuk from 900 to 3,200 troops. On 22 April, the UN passed a report to al-Maliki, Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, into options for the administration of Kirkuk and 14 other contested areas in northern Iraq. In all likelihood, this will merely add fuel to the fire.

In Baghdad, soon after the elections, Awakening Council fighters rose up. US troops and helicopter gunships were called in and fighting lasted a week. The Awakening Councils have complained that they have not been paid for months – ever since responsibility was transferred from the US military to the Iraqi government. US military leaders have had to step in to try to sort it out, amid reports that sections of the Awakening Councils have split away to rejoin the insurgency. US Colonel Jeffrey Kulmayer now reports to them daily, and the US military has intervened to persuade judges to dismiss cases of extortion and intimidation against Awakening Council leaders. (New York Times, 16 April)

The Shia-dominated government, however, is hostile to these Sunni fighters, many of whom were members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. Despite promising to find government jobs for Awakening Council members, out of 94,000 only 4,300 have been given jobs. The money for this programme is due to run out later this year. Government finances, generally, are under immense pressure from the stubbornly low oil price on world markets. So, demands from all ministries, sectors and regions, each riven with its own sectarian rifts, will become ever more strident and tense.

Against this background, US combat troops are supposed to withdraw by the end of August 2010, although Obama’s plan will still leave a ‘residual force’ of up to 50,000 soldiers. The full official withdrawal is planned for the end of 2011. Even then, many military personnel will remain in the US embassy fortress in Baghdad. If outright civil war erupts again, however, that could yet change. Thomas E Ricks writes in his book, The Gamble: "The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened". Many further twists and turns can be expected.

Manny Thain


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