Al Hakim No To Civil War Yes To

Al-Hakim: No to Civil War, Yes to Timetable for US Withdrawal

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the United Iraqi Alliance list, says that Shiites refuse to be tricked into a civil war by the attacks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Hakim alleges that Sunni Arabs are taking part in great numbers in the electoral process and says that he expects them to come out and vote on January 30. (According to some reports, many of the Sunni Arab slates that al-Hakim cited as proof of Sunni involvement in the elections have actually withdrawn.)

Registration has been extended for Iraqi voters abroad, since so far the number of registrants has been disappointing– about 90,000. An estimated one million expatriate Iraqis are eligible to vote, but it appears that only a tenth of that actually will. It should be remembered that in many countries it is necessary to travel for hours (even hours by plane) to get to a voter registration office (there are only two in Australia and none in Perth; there are none in the US South below Nashville [corrected 1/23]). In any case, the expatriate vote is largely irrelevant, since the election is being held on a proportional basis. If a list gets 10 percent of the national vote, it can seat its top 27 or 28 candidates, who are on a ranked list, in the 275-member parliament. A hundred thousand expats could only add a percentage point or two to a list’s total, especially since they will split their vote among several lists. (Dearborn, near where I live, is Sistani territory).

The Guardian asked a number of Iraqi politicians and observers of Iraq what they thought of the idea of a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from the country. The idea is obviously growing in popularity. I expressed my anxiety about a repeat of India 1947 or Palestine 1948– i.e. massive bloodshed, political partition, and subsequently several wars. Interestingly, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim seems to favor it, but underlines that it should be an Iraqi decision.

Helena Cobban, veteran Middle East observer and journalist and a dear friend, argues against my anxieties at her web log. She can’t understand why I think things could get worse if the US withdrew precipitously. I can’t understand why it would be hard to understand. The Baathists would begin by killing Grand Ayatollah Sistani, then Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, then Ibrahim Jaafari, and so on down the list of the new political class. Then they would make a coup. Once they had control of Iraq’s revenues, they could buy tanks and helicopter gunships in the world weapons bazaar and deploy them again against the Shiites. They might not be able to hang on very long, but it is doubtful if the country would survive all this intact. The Badr Corps could not stop this scenario, or it would have stopped all the assassinations lately of Shiite notables in the South, including two of Sistani’s aides. Had the US not dissolved the Iraqi army, I’d be out in the streets now demanding an immediate US withdrawal. The failures of the Fallujah campaign made it amply clear that the US armed forces are unlikely to make headway against the guerrilla insurgency, and in the meantime are just making hundreds of thousands of Iraqis more angry. You will note that Sistani, who is not shy about these things, has not demanded an immediate withdrawal of US forces. In fact, I was told by a US observer of the scene in Najaf that a member of the marja’iyyah asked the US to take care of the Mahdi Army for them last summmer.

There is a saying in Arabic, Ahl al-bayt a`lamu bima fi’l-bayt–the people of a house know best what is in the house. When Sistani says the US should set a timetable and go, then I think we should all support that. But the US has made a big enough mess in Iraq without compounding it by hanging the Iraqis out to dry and decamping suddenly. By the way, Iraqis have more than once pleaded with me to argue against precipitous withdrawal by the US.

Helena also argues against my invocation of India 1947 and Palestine 1948, where I suggest that the pre-announced date of a British withdrawal helped throw both into chaos, partition and virtual civil war. She replies that there have been successful instances of decolonization without partition or civil war. Of course there have been. But I would argue that ethnically based politics is so entrenched in Iraq at the moment that it does look more like India in 1947 or Palestine in 1948 than it looks like Kenya, Ghana or even Algeria at the moment they gained their freedom. I thank her for noting that this is not a trivial concern.

Mind you, if the elected Iraqi parliament asks for a withdrawal timetable, I think the US has an absolute duty to comply. It is a different issue as to whether such a move is wise or could succeed without the Iraqis paying an even higher price than they have already paid.