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Iraqis vote under the shadow of the gun

Andy Newman

election day in IraqAs expected the Iraqi elections have been compromised by poor security and lack of information for the voters about the plethora of parties they could choose between.  Nevertheless the reported turnout of 8 million is higher than many were expecting, more than 60% of those registered. There is no doubt that among many Iraqis there was real enthusiasm of this election. Last week I was interviewed on the BBC radio alongside a local Iraqi, Dr Yassin, who was delighted to be voting for the first time. His family in Iraq live in Najaf and were intending to go to the polls individually so if there was an attack on the polling station they would not all be killed together.

It is sometimes overlooked that the Americans themselves did not originally want elections, and were pressurized into them by mass demonstrations initiated by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq. What is more, many Iraqis regard the elections as a transitional step towards ending the occupation. Both the United Iraqi Alliance list (also known as the Shia list) and the Peoples' Unity list (led by the Iraqi Communist Party- ICP) want to see American withdrawal, as do many other parties.

For example, Abdullah Muhsin, international representative of the Iraqi Trade Union Federation (IFTU) wrote recently in the Morning Star that participation in the constitutional process, "would lead to a general election and certainly end the occupation, [we will] regain full sovereignty and take Iraq on the road to a representative parliamentary democracy that will, hopefully, bring stability, peace and prosperity. It will ensure a united and federal Iraq, guarantee religious freedom, advance public service and cement the virtues of citizenship based on respect for the human rights of Iraq's different nationalities and religions."

The large votes in the election for parties who want to see US withdrawal prove that Iraqis participating in the elections are not endorsing the occupation, and are certainly not endorsing the invasion of their country by the imperialists, and the plunder of their nation's resources by US multinationals. As Alex Callinicos of the SWP writes: "We have simply to accept that the Iraqi resistance remains divided over whether or not to participate in the elections"

There is indeed a widespread boycott endorsed mainly by Sunni religious authorities; but also it seems reflecting a genuine popular distrust that any good outcome can be achieved by the elections held under the shadow of Bradley armoured vehicles and Apache helicopters. Harith Al-Dhari, head of the Muslim Scholars Association in Baghdad explains why they are calling for a boycott: "We explained that the US forces' violence and tyranny against the Iraqi people and their destruction of our cities from Najaf to Falluja, were responsible for this dire situation. In addition, the Iraqis do not feel that these elections will lead to the fulfilment of their main demand, which is the end of the US occupation. They simply do not see a light at the end of the dark tunnel. ... Many share our conviction in the need to boycott the elections. However, if the US declared its commitment to a timeframe for leaving Iraq we could appeal to those people to take part in the elections."

Egyptian paper Al Ahram  quotes Salwa Azzab, forced out of her hometown of Dorra near Baghdad after her house was destroyed by American forces eight months ago: "I will never go to polls as long as I don't even know the names of the candidates, let alone their platforms, and as long as my country is still occupied by foreign forces. How can I choose my favourite candidates even in a symbolic election? I do not trust the polls; as Iraq is still under occupation and my family members are killed every day by the occupiers."

In fact it is not entirely accurate to describe the boycott as mainly a Sunni Moslem tactic. A boycott is also being urged by populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and 55 of the 111 electoral lists participating in the election are considered Sunni. It is more pertinent that it is the Sunni areas of Iraq that are embroiled in active insurgency, and where it is simply not safe to conduct an election. Most controversially some elements of the armed insurgency have targeted election workers and threatened to kill voters in an attempt to enforce the boycott. On the eve of poll more than a dozen polling stations were bombed and at least 17 people killed. Attacks on election day killed at least 36 according to the BBC. There can be no justification for this. Similarly the armed attacks on trade union officials, such as the recent murder of IFTU official Hadi Salih and the kidnapping of Talib Khadim Al Tayee, President of the Iraqi Mechanics, Metalworkers & Print workers Union (IMM&PU) must be condemned.

For those who see participation in the constitutional process as a step towards US withdrawal there may be a trap waiting in the detail of the process itself. To complete the constitutional process requires security to be restored, but the only force in Iraq that the new government can turn to is the 150,000 troops of the US led occupation.

It is necessary to understand the process. These national assembly elections are the just one step towards constitutional government according to roadmap laid down by the Interim State Administration Law (IAL). They elect a national assembly which will then appoint a government, president and prime minister. One of the main tasks facing the assembly will be to write a permanent constitution by the 15 August. A referendum is scheduled for two months after that and assuming a yes vote this will be followed by elections to elect a fully constitutional government by 30 December.

The IAL stipulates that should the constitution be rejected by three or more of Iraq's 18 provinces it will be blocked. So the provinces have a significance enshrined in the IAL. Few commentators have remarked that alongside the National Assembly election there is a simultaneous election for the regional councils of the 18 provinces. Apparently in three provinces, Salah Eddin, Mosul and Al-Anbar, and in large parts of Baghdad the election is simply not happening because the level of insurgency is too great. Al Ahram reported Iyad Al-Samara'i, of the Islamic Iraqi Party saying: "There is not a single balloting station in any of these provinces yet they are home to 40 per cent of the Iraqi population,"

To overcome the fact that the election is not truly happening in all of Iraq the whole country has been made a single nationwide constituency. But the referendum to ratify any constitution is required by the IAL to be conduced province by province, which in turns requires that the new government recovers sufficient control of the insurgent provinces to hold the referendum by the middle of October. No easy task.

The trap for the Iraqi Communist Party in particular is being sucked into the position of supporting the occupation forces restoring order as a precondition for their own withdrawal. Worryingly ICP member Abdullah Muhsin does seem to argue a rather uncomplicated view that the armed insurgency has no progressive component. As he wrote in the Morning Star: "The forces pushing for violent engagement [with the Americans] are composed of extreme reactionary fanatics. They are mainly ultra-fundamentalist in nature, such as al-Zarqawi, who makes no distinction between innocent civilians, both Iraqis and foreign workers, and foreign armies. Such fundamentalist groups seek to establish a Taliban-style regime. Other groups are composed of Saddam loyalists. These represent an extreme form of nationalism with a dark and violent history drenched in the blood of thousands of Iraqi democrats - communists, trade unionists, progressives and women activists. Saddam loyalists now pretend to be some sort of national liberation movement."

A much more nuanced appraisal is given by Gilbert Achcar, of the French LCR who recently wrote: "The so-called Iraqi resistance is a heterogeneous conglomerate of forces, many of them purely local. For a major part, these are people revolted by the heavy-handed occupation of their country, fighting against the occupiers and their armed Iraqi auxiliaries. But another segment of the forces engaged in violent actions in Iraq is composed of utterly reactionary fanatics, mainly of the Islamic Fundamentalist kind, who make no distinction between civilians, Iraqis included, and armed personnel, and resort to horrible acts, like the decapitation of Asian migrant workers and the kidnapping and/or assassination of all kinds of persons who are in no way hostile or harmful to the Iraqi national cause. These acts are being used in Washington to counterbalance the effect of the legitimate attacks against the US troops: the task of presenting the "enemy" as evil is thus made very easy." Commentators on the ground in Iraq, for example Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn of the Independent certainly give credence to this view that the majority of the insurgency is relatively uncoordinated, localist and popular. The 1600 dead American and other foreign soldiers, and over 10000 wounded stand witness that the occupation forces and their hapless allies in the Iraqi army and police bear the brunt of this.

The fact of a mass popular insurgency cannot be doubted, and CIA estimates put this at 200,000 combatants. This is the context within which Iraqi civil institutions - including trade unions and workers' parties - have to operate. Too close an association with the US occupation is likely to expose workers' organisations to risk of attack by the reactionary component of the insurgency. The ICP participation in the Allawi government may well be the motivation for the murder of Hadi Salih and the abduction of Al Tayee.

The Labour and anti-war movements in Britain must also recognize that the situation in Iraq is resistant to easy answers. Our movement rightly embraces individuals and organisations with a wide range of opinions. And we must accept that there will different attitudes towards the insurgency in Iraq, and which civil institutions in Iraq should be supported. The only hopeful outcome is for there to be a firm commitment for the early withdrawal of the occupation forces. This is the goal we must all unite around.


January 2005


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