Iraqis seek Islam, independence; US offers Turkey-style ‘democracy’

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General Jay Garner, the American-appointed ruler of Iraq, faced massive demonstrations in the centre of Baghdad on April 28, as he convened a conference of Iraqi leaders intended to discuss the formation of an interim administration – under his supervision – for the country. The conference, which was continuing as this issue of Crescent went to press, was reportedly attended by about 200 delegates, compared to the 300 or 400 who had been invited. Even this compared favourably with the shambolic events in Nasiriya a week earlier, when fewer than 80 people turned up for a similar meeting.

The demonstrations were predominantly against the US’s continued presence in Iraq. Although Iraq’s largest Islamic movement, the Majlis al-Aala l’il-Thawra al- Islami f’il-Iraq (the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, widely known simply as the Majlis), based in Iran and headed by Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, did send observers to the Baghdad meeting, having boycotted the one in Nasiriya, the public mood was still against the conference going ahead. It was only possible because of massive American security, and delegates had to run a gauntlet of protesters chanting “No Saddam, No Bush, Yes Islam, Yes Iraq” and similar slogans.

The demonstrators were also protesting against the arrest and detention of Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a member of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and an ally of INC leader Ahmed Chalabi. Zubaidi had earlier been appointed head of an Executive Committee of Baghdad by a group of senior Iraqi leaders in an attempt to establish some degree of civic administration in the city, but his position was never recognised by the Americans, who tried to order him to end his activities.

The Majlis had boycotted the previous week’s conference because its agenda had proposed to begin planning a blueprint for Iraq’s future from scratch, which observers say would basically mean along the lines planned by the US. Ayatullah al-Hakim said that he was boycotting the meetings unless they accepted the decisions reached by the meeting of opposition groups in London in December. Then, more than 300 delegates representing six major opposition-groups established a plan of action which the Americans decided to by-pass because it was not to their liking: it reflects the senior position held by the Majlis among Iraq’s opposition groups.

If Washington had been over-optimistic in its hope that it could defeat Saddam in three days, that is likely to be proved quite realistic compared to the expectation that the Americans would be welcomed with open arms by the Iraqis, and would quickly be able to arrange the legitimation of a puppet regime, in the style of Hamid Karzai’s ‘election’ in Afghanistan.

Compared to Afghanistan, where the Americans had only to buy off enough tribal leaders to control Kabul and certain key areas, in Iraq they are facing a much more complicated situation for a number of reasons. For one thing, Iraq’s society is far more advanced. Although it is hardly less fractured than Afghanistan’s, Iraq’s people are more sophisticated and demanding in their expectations. Secondly, the interests that America is pursuing in Iraq demand a more controlled and stable political situation than it needs in Afghanistan.

And finally, the eyes of the world – neighbouring Arab and Muslim countries, as well as the rest of the world – are closely focused on Iraq’s political development, while in Afghanistan the US was largely shielded from public gaze once the war was over. It is difficult to imagine, for example, American forces torturing Iraqi prisoners to death in Baghdad without a far greater outcry than it has faced in Afghanistan.

Although the US insists that hostilities have not ended and that it is still at war – partly to avoid the legal obligations of an occupying power, and partly to extend the deadline by which it has promised to establish an Iraqi administration in place of Garner’s ‘interim’ one – the reality is that it has effectively been in control of the country, and responsible for its governance, since the collapse of the Ba’athist regime on April 10.

During this time, it has utterly failed to restore the essential services destroyed during its bombardment of Iraq’s cities, has left a vacuum of law and order, resulting in mass indiscipline in some towns (although it is notable that this never resulted in any substantial communal or political violence), and failed to protect the rights and needs of Iraq’s people in any way. It is a sure sign of the Americans’ priorities that the few building in Baghdad that they tried to secure and protect after occupying the city included the oil and foreign ministries. Indeed, many people suspect that they welcomed widespread disorder after the fall of Saddam in order to demonstrate that the country needs their presence to maintain stability, order and peace.

In the northern city of Mosul, for example, Shaikh Ibrahim al-Namaa, a local alim, organised armed men to guard hospitals, masajid and homes, and later succeeded in forcing looters to return property that they had seized during the disorder. The US had sent several hundred troops into the city, who had failed utterly to protect its people.

In the south of the country the situation was more complicated, as the Americans had caused huge damage to towns as they tried to suppress resistance and secure control. In some places, local people had also resisted the American advance, causing friction between local people who favoured resistance and others who chose to follow the line advised by the Majlis and other opposition groups, which was to remain neutral in what was essentially a war between Saddam Hussain and the Americans.

Nonetheless, it was local ulama in towns like Nasariya, Najaf and Karbala who succeeded in provided services and order in the post-Saddam period. Although there were some instances of looting, mostly targeted at former Ba’athist officials, and much exaggerated by the foreign press, in several places local leaders, mostly ulama, stepped into the gap to maintain order and try to help the local people cope with the situation as best they could.

Some tension between different political trends and factions was visible. This resulted in the assassination of Hujjatul-Islam Majid al-Khoei in the Ali mosque in Najaf on April 10, shortly after his arrival from London. It also resulted in a short-lived demand that Ayatullah Sistani, the senior most Shi’a alim remaining in Iraq, should leave the country because of his advice to Iraqis not to intervene in fighting between Saddam supporters and American troops.

This immediate tension soon died down after the intervention of other senior ulama, but it may have encouraged the US to hope that, given time, Iraqi leaders would fall out among themselves and demonstrate that they could not work together for the good of the country and its people without the forceful mediation which the US could provide. If this was the case, the strategy backfired badly.

Despite very different perspectives, Iraqi leaders instead proved remarkably able to work together to pursue common interests. They were no doubt helped in this by the massive anti-American and pro-Islam demonstrations in Baghdad and other towns, attended by Sunnis and Shias together, as well as by the huge anti-American protests that accompanied the Shia gathering in Karbala on April 23 to mark the fortieth day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (ra).

This must have demonstrated to Chalabi and others who planned to work closely with the Americans that it was politically wiser to remain on good terms with the Majlis and other Islamic leaders than to be seen to be on good terms with the increasingly unpopular Americans. The cooperation between different communities in Iraq was also notable. In his khutbah at the Abu-Hanifa masjid in Baghdad on April 18, the sunni Shaikh al-Kabisi called for the unity of all Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, and the establishment of a committee of community leaders to ensure cooperation and harmony. The proposal was welcomed by leaders of the Majlis.

The result is that, a fortnight after the collapse of the Ba’athist regime, the Americans’ plans for establishing political control over post-Saddam Iraq are looking increasingly uncertain. With Chalabi and the INC perhaps appearing compromised in American eyes by the relations they are forging with Islamic groups, and the Americans reluctant to accommodate the Islamic movement on any terms, they may be forced to look elsewhere for support.

Two developments have been noted that may be relevant in this regard: one is the increasing recruitment of former Ba’athist officials to resume work under US supervision, and the second is the search for more acceptable candidates from outside the main Iraqi groups to lead Iraq. The name of Adnan Pachachi, an 80-year-old secular former Iraqi foreign minister, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for many years, has no ties to any group, and has spoken in favour of the war and of a secular, democratic pro-Western regime, has been mentioned in this context. Pachachi is seen as a man who could be accepted as a compromise candidate by different groups, while having no close links to any of them and being utterly dependent on the US for his support and position.

As part of their interim administration, the US has appointed a commission to examine constitutional possibilities for Iraq. This is where it hopes that the shape of Iraq’s political future will be decided. This commission includes some American-based Iraqis, but the senior most figure on it is Noah Feldman, a Jewish-American law professor who is also regarded as an ‘expert’ on Islam. He is also known to have close links to Israel. Feldman has said that he would welcome a constitution modelled on Turkey’s “Islamic democracy”. Turkey being an aggressively secular state, this is unlikely to satisfy Iraq’s faithful Muslims.

Apart from oil, the vital interests that the US is pursuing in Iraq are probably dominated by the zionist agenda. This makes it particularly vital that Iraq’s Muslims pull together and succeed in resisting the US’s plans for the country. Iraq’s Islamic movements and leaders must play a key role in this struggle.

Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.

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