Sunday, January 30, 2005

Blue fingers

I'm very moved watching the election news from Iraq this evening, esp. the proud camaraderie of all those blue-inked fingers, which just yesterday seemed like they'd risk drawing attack. Events and people can surprise you sometimes. This doesn't make me feel any different about US policy, but in purely human terms it says a lot about what happens when the fear of losing your life gives way to a prospect larger than yourself alone (I guess this can be for the good or the bad, depending on whether you're a voter or a jihadist.). Even in Falluja, where turnout was expected to be in the 100s at best, out of the 20,000 people who returned to the town after the U.S. invasion (25% of the population) some 8000 or 40% reportedly voted. One video clip in particular made me almost want to cry, a Kurdish woman wiping away tears as she talked about her father, who had been killed under Saddam Hussein. The reporter asked what the voting had meant to her. "Freedom" she said after a short pause. "Happiness. Victory."

Of course it's not particularly fun to see George Bush so pumped up about the apparent vindication of his policies. He's so inhumanly smug about it, however, that I can feel perfectly justified in still hating him while letting him have his moment. If I feel irritation at any politician it's John Kerry, who appeared on Meet the Press this morning with a dyspeptic, shell shocked look on his face, like he'd eaten a bad clam. When asked by Tim Russert if voting had turned out differently than he expected, Kerry responded baldfacedly "It's turned out exactly as I expected," and then jumped on the issue of continued troop presence, pausing not even a moment to acknowledge the remarkable human spectacle unfolding in Iraq. Another example, actually, of the woodenness and lack of emotional immediacy that helped lose him the election.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 6-5-4-3-2-1...

Yes it's cheating. But why should the Bush administration be the only one to play games with numbers?

There've just been too many stories and too many possibilities to write about this past week. Not all of them have been about "insurgents" or Kafkaesque electoral logistics. I've felt moved if not hopeful reading the words of expectant Iraqi voters; I've been more disgusted than ever at the bluster and denial coming from the White House; and I've been shocked into doubtful silence at the increasing violence and viciousness threatening Iraqis in their "sovereign" homeland, and the threat of more. (This includes the thousands of civilian victims of American military actions, whom the Iraqi government is finally officially accounting for). In the end, all I can think of is that tomorrow those possibilities will narrow down to more bodies, more smoking ruins, and more screaming survivors. For the outside world, if not for the Iraqis themselves, the success or failure of these elections may depend on a run-off of media images: will the pictures of living voters, bravely exercising their right to self-determination, outweigh those of Iraqis who never lived to see the result of their vote, or to vote at all.

One thing that's nagged at me this week is how much these "ordinary" Iraqis, living and the dead, will be the victims of forces that have nothing to do with Iraqi interests and Iraqi hopes, whether of democratic accountability or ethnic supremacy. The decision to fix the date of voting on January 30, and accept all the risks that go with it, had vastly more to with the American presidential elections, and returning the Republicans to the White House, than what was best for Iraqis, of whatever political or ethnic affiliation. I have to agree the fierce logic of the Sunnis who argue that voting in this election represents collaboration with the interests of an occupying power. The Iraqis who die hoping to bring representative government to their country will, in a very real sense, have sacrificed their lives for two elections, their own and ours.

I found myself thinking yesterday of the words of Bush’s presidential opponent, John Kerry, after he’d returned from an earlier failed adventure in American values: “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for an idea?” At least in Vietnam, we were only asking that question of our own people. And the idea, hollow as it was, was something more than four more years of George Bush.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 7

Aljazeera's coverage of the Iraqi election news today is little more than a litany of attacks around the country. But maybe this gives a better image of the atmosphere in Iraq -- and the random, relentless pattern of violence -- than more analytical articles. One hit after another, unpredictable, shocking and numbing at the same time, and with no end in sight.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 8

Reuters reports today that "U.S. and Iraqi officials believe most of the country is secure enough for elections except Baghdad and three mostly Sunni Arab provinces - Anbar, Ninevah and Salaheddin." Only four provinces out of eighteen -- sounds almost encouraging. However, these four regions contain more than 40% of the population of Iraq, including the majority of Iraqi Sunnis.

The election security in those parts of the country, from what's reported, could make polling stations resemble armed camps. A cordon of police at the polling places will be surrounded by a larger circle of Iraqi security forces, with U.S. forces rapid-reaction forces standing ready if needed. Voters will in effect be walking in the doors of military bases, and military targets. Reuters, not surprisingly, suggests that "insurgent attacks and intimidation may produce a disappointing turnout."

Any voters in these regions who do show up will likely be overwhelmingly Shia, despite the majority Sunni population. Attacks and intimidation aren't the only problem. The leading Sunni political parties have withdrawn from the elections, citing the security situation; and Sunni clerics are preaching the opposite message from their Shi'ite counterparts: stay away from the polls.

A New York Times article today cites some illuminating if unscientific numbers: in a survey of 50 to 60 Iraqis, mostly from Baghdad and adjacent regions, every Shi'ite interviewed said they planned to vote. Every Sunni except one said they'd stay away from the polls. Equally illuminating are the reasons cited for non-participation. It seems clear, for instance, that the extreme measures taken by the U.S. military to secure regions like Anbar and Salaheddin have also alienated many ordinary voters, and reinforced the image of a country under foreign occupation. Under these conditions, taking part in a U.S. sponsored election seems like voting for the enemy. The enthusiastic participation of the Shia population, on the other hand, must only reinforce Sunni fears of disenfranchisement. To say this is a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn't lessen its force.

The more realistic official voices, Iraqi and U.S., will admit the risks of keeping the January 30 date, but argue the costs of delay would be even worse. There are probably good arguments on both sides. What is certain is that, in many ways, the efforts to unite the country under a legitimate, democratically-elected government are also strengthening the forces that could tear it bloodily apart, once that election is over.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 9

Looking for reliable "in-country" Iraqi news sources on the web, I found instead several thoughtful, heartfelt and sometimes darkly funny blogs by ordinary and not so ordinary Iraqis. "Healing Iraq" (http://healingiraq.blogspot.com) by an Iraqi Shi'ite dentist -- sectarian identity is never far from the surface -- is a good example. The inside perspective on the main political parties' electioneering styles (too long to quote here) is particularly illuminating: an Iraq blessed with party politics will also need its own Jimmy Breslin soon. Reassuring somehow.

From a posting today:

"One week to elections day and the general atmosphere in the capital is eerie, yet strikingly familiar. I suspect the streets of Baghdad will look as if a war is looming this week. There is no doubt that many Iraqis regard the date of 30 January as a day of renewed hope, one they have been awaiting all their lives, but at the same time, many others are already dreading it."

"Several candidates were assassinated and targeted these last two weeks, others have been forced under threats to withdraw and to follow the example of the Islamic party. Sectarian tensions are at their highest since April, 2004, with Sunni insurgents now openly attacking Husseiniyas and Shia mosques."

"Ahmed Al-Chalabi and defense minister Hazim Al-Sha'lan have been engaging in shrill public attacks over the media. Chalabi describing Sha'lan as a "Ba'athist" and a "former double agent for Saddam and the CIA", while Sha'lan dismisses Chalabi as a "thief" and an "Iranian stooge who longs for his own origins by defending Iran". One remark made by Sha'lan on Al-Arabiya TV, that he couldn't say more about Chalabi because he would embarrass himself and the viewers almost made me roll on the floor. It was an extremely amusing episode, watching Chalabi looking smug and amused, contrasted with Sha'lan, all serious and barely keeping himself from swearing. Fistfights, please."

"The only hope now is that, following the elections, the National Assembly would offer the hand of peace and reconciliation to the dissenting parties. I would suggest going for tribal Sheikhs rather than clerics, since they have the upper hand in their areas and can effectively root out any Ba'athists in their midst in return for a promise of sharing power and authority. Many of these Sheikhs have been disenfranchised and abused over the last two years."

"Many Iraqis, including conservative and religious Iraqis, are surprisingly rooting for the Iraqi Communist party, probably in an attempt to counter the influence of Islamists in the forthcoming National Assembly. The Communist party has the largest number of registered party members in the country and can be considered as the oldest popular political party in Iraq. Its support base is much larger than what it seems."

"I believe national reconciliation to be the only path forward to a new Iraq. The Shia cannot live without the Sunnis, and vice versa. Both have shared this country for the last 14 centuries and there is no possible way that one can live without the other. Even partition is not a possibility, there are no clear borders between the two."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 10

Enough of what I think about the Iraqi elections. What does newly inaugurated second-termer GW think about the Iraqi elections:

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

If true, this does not bode well for the survival of liberty in the U.S. Of course, the fact that we even have a second Bush inaugural is not the best news on that front either.

Meanwhile, back at Iraq, the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi today issued his own, maybe not coincidentally timed message:

"The fruits of jihad come after much patience and a lengthy stay in the battlefield ... which could last months and years. In the fight against the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross, we find that despite its military might, it is being crushed emotionally and morally. Our battle with the enemy is a battle of streets and towns and has many tactical, defensive and offensive methods. Fierce wars are not decided in days or week."

Which sadly speaks to my point in the last posting: the elections are a mere blip in this apocalyptic view of history.

Apocalyptic or not, there is more truth in Zarqawi's rants at "the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross" than in the dishonest, pseudo-ecumenical homilies that closed Bush's inaugural address: "Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of our character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran."

Is it just me, or does this last half sentence sound mainly like the start of a good joke: "Ariel Sharon, George Bush, and Osama Bin Laden walked into a bar in the West Bank..."



Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 11

Most newspapers lead today with the multiple car bombings in Baghdad, which killed a total of 26 according to the U.S. military. It's said that these attacks are part of "an intensified campaign of violence apparently meant to disrupt nationwide elections planned for Jan. 30", as the New York Times puts it. Time gets shorter, violence grows -- it's by now a familiar equation. But I've gotten a little impatient with this catchall explanation, which plays so conveniently to the skepticism and gloom of the media, on the one hand, and the self-righteousness of the White House on the other. No one's asked them, but you have to figure that the martyrs and mujahidin who are now blowing themselves, their countrymen, and heavily armed tourists to holy smithereens in so many ways, and in so many different parts of the country, are doing so for a quite a range of motives, not all of which fit into journalists' or Republicans' neat narratives.

Of course, disrupting election-related activities and scaring potential voters must be a big piece of the puzzle, but this doesn't explain what insurgents were doing back in September (when the rate of attacks came close to what it is now, roughly 80 a day) or help us predict what will certainly continue to happen in the weeks after January 30, whether the elections happen or not. This explanation also assumes that the majority of insurgents understand enough of what "elections" mean to have a clear sense what it means to disrupt them -- something one could reasonably doubt, if they're as informed on this subject as the majority of Iraqis (see previous post). The disruptions, in any case, are only a means to an end, an "end" where targets, my instincts tell me, have more to do with basic categories like "Shi'ite" or "Sunni" or "U.S. soldier" or "Iraqi collaborator with U.S. soldiers" than with the abstract goals of democratic institution building.

A more deeply alarming, if less dramatic, piece of election-related news (reported in today's New York Times) is the new American intelligence estimate claiming that "[t]he Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops." The report at the same time warns that "the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war." Scary as it is to think of an Iraq full of U.S. soldiers who are a continuing provocation to terrorist violence, it's scarier to think of a still unstable Iraq without an American buffer, and nothing to keep opposing groups from each other's throats. But that seems to be what Iraqi leaders (at least Shi'ite leaders) want, and despite the American hems and haws reported in the same article, what the U.S. will have to accept -- with a secret sigh of relief in the White House, no doubt. (And after all, that will free up troops for an invasion of Iran. Second time's a charm...)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 12

Only 12 shooting days until Democracy.

Of course, 20% of the country won't be represented -- or is voting, as they say, with their feet, if not with guns. And this is only part of the surreal election cycle in a country at war. Where no one knows either the names of most of the candidates or their platforms. When 60% of the electorate thinks the election is for a new president, rather than a 275 member national assembly to write a new constitution. Where they haven't even published the locations of many polling places yet -- and those that are known are targets for insurgent mortar shells. Where the same travel restrictions meant to hamper the insurgents may hamper voters equally. But then never having known even the shadow of a free election for decades, perhaps Iraqis are proof against such ironies.

Under these conditions, you have to admire the determination of the powers in charge. The chief UN Election advisor, Carlos Valenzuela, announced today that only "a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers will prevent this month's national elections from going ahead". Though he also "acknowledged that intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail the balloting is 'high and very serious'.'' The inventiveness of the Iraqi electoral commission, as it tries to deal with such risks, puts Florida election officials to shame. Voters from the troubled provinces of Nineveh and Anwar will be allowed to register and vote on the same day. And in Mosul, where reports last week (contested by Valenzuela) were that virtually all election workers had resigned, "voters will be allowed to cast ballots in safer parts the city or elsewhere in the province." Other schemes seem more dubiously conceived, e.g. the plan to post lists of voters at offices throughout the country, to let names be either added or challenged, to prevent fraud. If I were an Iraqi terrorist, why wouldn't I thank the commission for this handy way to shop for potential victims?

Fraud is a serious concern of course, although the "ordinary" kind of electoral problem that's simultaneously dwarfed and exacerbated in Iraq by security issues. Indeed, by comparison to blowing up election officials, fraud might be considered a vote of confidence in the system. Look at it this way: you can't rig the vote, if you don't have the vote. And the truth is massive electoral fraud offers the best chance of at least numerically legitimate representation in Sunni areas. Though this also almost guarantees a post-electoral challenge by some in the certain-to-be-victorious Shi'ite factions. But then as George Bush might say, this election is only a beginning not an end. Except to American involvement in Iraq (see next post).