Electing to cut and run

For coalition officials, the Iraqi election on Sunday is another opportunity to wash their hands of the mess their war created.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Among those sceptical about the Iraq war, there seem to be two, conflicting views of the forthcoming elections, due to take place on Sunday 30 January.

The first, held by those of a decidedly anti-war persuasion, says the Iraqi elections are little more than a stunt orchestrated by the coalition to consolidate its rule. The election will, according to one left-wing commentator, ‘be conducted under a military occupier that controls a puppet government’ (1). The aim, apparently, is to ‘make Iraq a client state’, as ‘control of Iraq’s oil is a strategic and economic prize that would be impossible for the oil-dominated Bush administration to walk away from’ (2).

The second view, held by those on the sceptical-about-war side of things, is that the election will, or at least ought to, bring about the right conditions for a withdrawal of the coalition. Some of the New York Times’ top op-ed writers suggested asking Iraqis in a referendum six weeks after the election if they think foreign troops should withdraw (before adding, ‘Tell them we’ll hold the referendum every nine months until they vote us out or we determine it’s time to leave’) (3). Some reports say British officials are browbeating the Bushies into using the opportunity of the election to ‘announce a timetable for withdrawing coalition troops’ (4).

What both of these camps fail to appreciate is that, to all intents and purposes, the coalition has already left Iraq. Its forces may still be there – with 150,000 Americans holed up in Baghdad’s tightly secured Green Zone or in Saddam’s former palaces around the country, and 9,000 Brits in southern Iraq – but politically and emotionally the coalition absented itself long ago.

The election is not an attempt by America to imprint itself, imperial-style, on to Iraq; the election may, as others predict, lead to an eventual physical withdrawal, though that remains to be seen. What can be said is that the election is the latest in the coalition’s attempts to disavow political responsibility for Iraq, and wash its hands of the mess its war created.

On 30 January, Iraq’s estimated 14million voters will vote for 275 members of a new Transitional National Assembly (TNA). This TNA will take over from interim prime minister Ayad Allawi’s transitional government and serve as a national legislature while drawing up a more permanent constitution for future elections. There will also be elections to 18 provincial assemblies and to the autonomous Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq. Around 120 parties have so far been authorised to put forward candidates for the assembly – with each party presenting a list of at least 12 candidates where every third name must be a woman’s, to ensure that 25 per cent of the seats in the assembly are taken by women (5).

No doubt many Iraqis will be pleased to vote in an election where the choice is not only between Saddam and Saddam. But this election is taking place in far-from-ideal conditions. Iraq’s borders will be shut during the election process. A senior US commander recently predicted that insurgent attacks would escalate ahead of the election and warned, ominously, that American soldiers could ‘not guarantee that every person who wants to vote can do [so] safely’ (which could be because American forces are carrying out fewer and fewer patrols, and seem to spend much of their time back at barracks) (6).

The mechanics of the election suggest this is not exactly an Iraqi-driven affair. Because of a tight timetable there was no time to conduct a proper census of Iraq’s eligible voters, so instead electoral rolls will be based on the United Nations’ ‘Oil for Food’ lists, drawn up over five years ago. Even the ballot papers are not Iraqi; they were printed in Switzerland to avoid counterfeiting (7).

But while the election is not a paragon of democracy, nor is it part of a secret mission by the USA and its allies to transform Iraq into a client state. The impetus for this election comes not from the Iraqi people, however keen they may be to regain control of their destiny, but from a coalition seeking to ditch responsibility for Iraq’s destiny.

Some critics talk of the coalition as a puppeteer to the election, controlling things from behind the scenes; in fact, it is striking how hands-off American and British rulers have been. The US State Department insists that the election planning and execution are being done ‘by Iraqis for Iraqis’, assuring us that America’s role is ‘limited, and consists primarily of providing financial support for the costs of the mechanics of the election’. Indeed, US officials have taken to referring queries about the elections to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, an Iraqi group set up by Allawi’s government, pointing out that this body has ‘exclusive jurisdiction of the oversight, organisation and conduct of the election’ (8).

Far from being the usual doublespeak employed by Western officials during post-occupation handovers of power, America’s stand-back approach to the Iraqi election corresponds with its actions over the past 18 months. Its election-talk follows a pattern, where coalition leaders have increasingly sought to distance themselves from political authority over Iraq.

After the end of the war in May 2003, the coalition outlawed the flying of American and British flags and redesigned the new Iraqi currency following concerns that it looked too much like the American dollar. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which governed Iraq from May 2003 until the end of June 2004, insisted it wasn’t an occupying force: it was headed by Paul Bremer, an ‘administrator’ rather than a High Representative, who was guarded by private security guards rather than US soldiers, and described itself as ‘the temporary governing body which has been designated by the UN as the lawful government of Iraq until such time as Iraq is politically and socially stable enough to assume its sovereignty’.

Bremer’s main role seemed to be to abolish himself at the earliest opportunity; the CPA website came complete with a ‘Countdown to Sovereignty’ ticker, which anticipated, by the second, the day when postwar Iraq would become Iraqis’ permanent responsibility rather than the CPA’s temporary responsibility.

When Bremer signed political control over Iraq to interim prime minister Allawi in June 2004, the coalition again took a step back from the proceedings. President Bush denied that he played any role in selecting Allawi: ‘I had no role. I mean, occasionally somebody said, “This person may be interested, or that person”, but I had no role in picking. Zero.’ (9) Before leaving Iraq, Bremer gave Allawi a letter from Bush asking for diplomatic ties with the new regime – a highly unusual thing for an occupying power to do. The aim was to present the new Iraq and America as two distinct entities, tied merely by diplomatic niceties rather than shared military, political or economic interests, or, for that matter, the war that had occurred only a year earlier.

The election looks to be part of this same process. That is one reason why coalition officials are so desperate for it to take place, even though Iraqi officials (including Allawi himself at one stage) have questioned whether this is wise. Some predict that there will be low voter turnout (there has certainly been low turnout among Iraqi citizens outside of Iraq, who are eligible to vote; the registration deadline for Iraqis living abroad has been extended by two days, after only about one in eight of those eligible signed up during the initial phase) (10).

Still, the election must go ahead, say US officials. One told the Washington Post: ‘I would really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don’t have any meaning’ – and to prove the point, he ‘highlighted the low voter turnout in US elections as evidence that polling numbers are not essential to legitimacy’ (11). Of course there’s more to elections than numbers, but coalition officials seem equally unconcerned about who or what Iraqis vote for – just so long as the election happens.

Even Abu al-Zarqawi’s declaration yesterday of a ‘fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology’ didn’t put coalition leaders off (12). US officials usually give far too much credence to Zarqawi’s sporadic statements; as one US agent in Iraq admitted at the end of last year, officials have helped to transform Zarqawi from a man into a myth. Yet this time even Zarqawi was brushed aside, with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice telling reporters yesterday that: ‘The Iraqis will be just fine. They’re starting a process and this [election] is an important step.’ (13)

It is striking that the Americans and British, who are normally so picky about the conduct of foreign elections, are not especially concerned that this Iraqi election might be unsafe or fail to win a large turnout. Their concern is simply that it takes place, in the hope that it might magically bestow some legitimacy and stability on to postwar Iraq, and more importantly move the coalition a step further from being responsible for this disastrous state of its own making. The coalition will still have a vast military presence in Iraq, but, after the election, it will have well and truly left in spirit.

What Iraqis are likely to be left with is not an old-style puppet regime that represents great power interests, or a regime that has its origins in the hopes and desires of the Iraqi people, but a flimsy administration born of the coalition’s desire to cut and run. That, at least, is the coalition’s wish – though leaving its Iraqi mess behind might yet prove to be wishful thinking.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The press unites in ignorance, David Edwards, New Statesman, 24 January 2005

(2) Reframing the Iraq election, Frank Brodhead, Znet, 21 January 2005

(3) Should we stay or should we go?, Fredrick Barton, Bathsheba Crocker and Craig Cohen, New York Times, 19 January 2005

(4) Britain urges USA to set exit timetable, The Age, 21 January 2005

(5) Iraq election at a glance, BBC News, 23 November 2004

(6) Bush says four Iraqi areas pose vote challenge, Reuters, 7 January 2005

(7) Iraq election at a glance, BBC News, 23 November 2004

(8) Iraq elections: a vote for democracy, on the US Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs website

(9) Taking Questions, PBS, 1 June 2004

(10) Low turnout for Iraqi exile vote, CBS News, 21 January 2005

(11) Once again, no regrets, Dan Froomkin, Washington Post, 13 January 2005

(12) Al-Zarqawi declares war on democracy, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 2005

(13) Al-Zarqawi declares war on democracy, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 2005

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Topics Politics


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