After the pre-Christmas respite afforded by the conveniently-timed capture of Saddam, the US occupation of Iraq became more troubled again last month. Paul O’Neill, former US treasury secretary, gave the highest-level confirmation to date that Bush and his clique had been planning an invasion of Iraq from their first days in office. Later in January David Kays, the out-going head of the Iraq Survey group, charged with finding proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, said as he resigned that Iraq had not had such weapons since the US’s attack on it (1981). This prompted the US secretary of state to admit that the existence of WMDs "remains an open question," and forced Washington to announce a review of the intelligence on which claims about WMDs were based. As this issue goes to press, the Hutton Report –” due to be published on January 28 –” is expected to make further damaging revelations about how the British government manipulated public opinion to justify its support for Bush’s aggression. With all this going on, Bush’s confident belligerence in his State of the Union address on January 20 sounded even hollower than usual.
More problematic for Washington than these domestic pressures, however, is the continuing refusal of Iraq to submit to the US’s plans for it. There has been an increase in military resistance against occupation, despite an increasingly hardline approach by US troops, using the sort of tactics against Iraqi civilians suspected of resistance that zionist troops have become notorious for in Palestine. At least eight US soldiers were killed in three separate operations on January 25 alone, making it the worst day of 2004 so far for US troops, and destroying US claims that the resistance had been weakened by Saddam’s capture.
Most worrying of all for the US, however, is the rising tide of anti-US anger among the Shi’a community in the southern part of Iraq, whom the US has tried to portray as welcoming the US invasion and cooperating with the US-imposed regime. On January 6 protests reached such a pitch that British troops in Basra had to open fire to disperse angry crowds. On January 10 US and British troops killed at least six in Amarah when they opened fire on thousands of protestors. The protests destroy US claims that the south of the country is calm, and that only the ‘Sunni triangle’ is resisting.
This anger is reflected also in is the increasingly assertive political opposition to its constitutional plans for Iraq. In November the US unveiled plans to establish an ‘interim government’ by the end of June. This government would be hand-picked by the US and its allies, through regional caucuses that they could easily manipulate (consider the recent Loya Jirga in Afghanistan, for instance). This interim government would be a front for continued US domination, enabling Washington to pursue its political and economic interests; it would also enable Bush to claim in the run-up to the presidential elections that the US has established freedom and democracy in Iraq, and is decreasing its direct involvement there.
These plans depend on the cooperation, or at least acquiescence, of enough Iraqi ‘leaders’ for the US to be able to ignore and marginalise those who reject them. However, despite efforts to cultivate senior leaders in the Shi’a community, who make up a clear majority of Iraq’s population, senior Shi’a leaders in Iraq have opposed the US’s proposals, demanding free elections and a constitutional assembly based on the political values of Iraq’s people, which are based on Islam.
For much of last year the US and Iraqis waited in suspense for a "golden fatwa" from Shi’i ulama declaring jihad against the US forces; none came, as the ulama decided that conditions were not right for an open declaration of war on the US. This is largely attributed to an instinctive political conservatism on the part of the Hawza in Najaf, in particular Iraq’s most senior Shi’a alim, Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani. The only alim with the standing to offer a serious alternative political direction was Ayatullah Baqer al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s main Islamic movement, the Majlis al-Aala l’il-Thawra al-Islami f’il-Iraq (the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). He was assassinated by a bomb in Najaf in August; since then his followers have had little option but to work with Ayatullah Sistani. A more assertive political voice is that of Moqtada Sadr, but he is a relatively junior figure, family associations notwithstanding.
Ayatullah Sistani’s attack on the US’s political plans is a long way from the "golden fatwa", but it is still a serious challenge and threat to the US. His subsequent suggestion that the UN should assess the feasibility of direct elections, which came after Bush asked the UN to find ways to overcome opposition to the US’s scheme, may be a sign of political naivity; certainly Moqtada al-Sadr is rightly dismissive of the UN, describing it as "dishonest" and "subservient to America". However, Sistani’s position may be seen as offering the US a face-saving way of changing plans. It would, of course, not be in the US’s nature to do so.
The Shi’a establishment’s political caution is also attributable to a number of other factors, including in particular an awareness of the divisions and potential for in-fighting in Iraqi society, divided as it is between Kurdish, Arab Sunni and Shi’a sectors, with little experience of political cooperation. The Kurdish north has experience of autonomy under US protection since 1991, and would need little encouragement to demand independence. US analysts have already floated the idea of breaking Iraq up into three countries, a proposal that can be seen at least partly as a threat. Shia-Sunni sectarianism is also a danger. These are potential fault-lines in Iraqi society that the US is already trying to exploit. Any political alternative put forward be designed to ensure that all Iraqis can be expected to cooperate, while avoiding the danger of becoming no more than ‘lowest common denominator’ rhetoric.
It would be entirely understandable if some Iraqi leaders felt that there is little prospect of such a consensus at this time. However, this is to leave the field open to the US, whose plans for Iraq must be resisted as far as possible. Despite its problems, Iraq’s Islamic movement –” by which we mean Islamic forces within all Iraq’s communities –” must come together quickly to offer an alternative to the US’s plans and Iraq’s self-destructive potential. The alternative is the establishment of a pro-Western regime that is as bad as, or worse than, the Ba’athist regime for Iraq’s people, society and future.