Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005
Iraq has unfortunately become a football in the rough and ready, two-party American political arena, generating large numbers of sound bites and so much spin you could clothe all of China in the resulting threads.
Here are what I think are the top ten myths about Iraq, that one sees in print or on television in the United States.
1. The guerrilla war is being waged only in four provinces. This canard is trotted out by everyone from think tank flacks to US generals, and it is shameful. Iraq has 18 provinces, but some of them are lightly populated. The most populous province is Baghdad, which has some 6 million residents, or nearly one-fourth of the entire population of the country. It also contains the capital. It is one of the four being mentioned!. Another of the four, Ninevah province, has a population of some 1.8 million and contains Mosul, a city of over a million and the country’s third largest! It is not clear what other two provinces are being referred to, but they are probably Salahuddin and Anbar provinces, other big centers of guerrilla activity, bringing the total for the “only four provinces” to something like 10 million of Iraq’s 26 million people.
But the “four provinces” allegation is misleading on another level. It is simply false. Guerrilla attacks occur routinely beyond the confines of Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Baghdad. Diyala province is a big center of the guerrilla movement and has witnessed thousands of deaths in the ongoing unconventional war. Babil province just south of Baghdad is a major center of back alley warfare between Sunnis and Shiites and attacks on Coalition troops. Attacks, assassinations and bombings are routine in Kirkuk province in the north, a volatile mixture of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs engaged in a subterranean battle for dominance of the area’s oil fields. So that is 7 provinces, and certainly half the population of the country lives in these 7, which are daily affected by the ongoing violence. It is true that violence is rare in the 3 northern provinces of the Kurdistan confederacy. And the Shiite south is much less violent than the 7 provinces of the center-north, on a good day. But some of this calm in the south is an illusion deriving from poor on the ground reporting. It appears to be the case that British troops are engaged in an ongoing struggle with guerrilla forces of the Marsh Arabs in Maysan Province. Even calm is not always a good sign. The southern port city of Basra appears to come by its via a reign of terror by Shiite religious militias.
2. Iraqi Sunnis voting in the December 15 election is a sign that they are being drawn into the political process and might give up the armed insurgency So far Iraqi Sunni parties are rejecting the outcome of the election and threatening to boycott parliament. Some 20,000 of them demonstrated all over the center-north last Friday against what they saw as fraudulent elections. So, they haven’t been drawn into the political process in any meaningful sense. And even if they were, it would not prevent them from pursuing a two-track policy of both political representation and guerrilla war. The two-track approach is common among insurgencies, from Northern Ireland’s IRA to Palestine’s Hamas.
3. The guerrillas are winning the war against US forces. The guerrillas are really no more than mosquitos to US forces. The casualties they have inflicted on the US military, of over 2000 dead and some 15,000 wounded, are deeply regrettable and no one should make light of them. But this level of insurgency could never defeat the US military in the field.
4. Iraqis are grateful for the US presence and want US forces there to help them build their country. Opinion polls show that between 66% and 80% of Iraqis want the US out of Iraq on a short timetable. Already in the last parliament, some 120 parliamentarians out of 275 supported a resolution demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, and that sentiment will be much stronger in the newly elected parliament.
5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is close to the Iranian regime in Tehran Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite community, is an almost lifetime expatriate. He came to Iraq late in 1951, and is far more Iraqi than Arnold Schwarzenegger is Californian. Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi in Iran, who argued against clerical involvement in day to day politics. Sistani rejects Khomeinism, and would be in jail if he were living in Iran, as a result. He has been implicitly critical of Iran’s poor human rights record, and has himself spoken eloquently in favor of democracy and pluralism. Ma’d Fayyad reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in August of 2004 that when Sistani had heart problems, an Iranian representative in Najaf visited him. He offered Sistani the best health care Tehran hospitals could provide, and asked if he could do anything for the grand ayatollah. Sistani is said to have responded that what Iran could do for Iraq was to avoid intervening in its internal affairs. And then Sistani flew off to London for his operation, an obvious slap in the face to Iran’s Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei.
6. There is a silent majority of middle class, secular-minded Iraqis who reject religious fundamentalism. Two major elections have been held. For all their flaws (lack of security, anonymity of most candidates, constraints on campaigning), they certainly are weather vanes of the political mood of most of the country. While the Kurdistan Alliance is largely secular, the Arab Iraqis have turned decisively toward religious fundamentalist parties. The United Iraqi Alliance (Shiite fundamentalists) and the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni fundamentalists) are the big winners of the most recent election. Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya list got only 14.5 percent of the seats on Jan. 30, and will shrink to half that, most likely, in this most recent election. A clear majority of Iraqis, and the vast majority of the Arab Iraqis, are constructing new, fluid political identities that depend heavily on religious and ethnic sub-nationalisms.
7. The new Iraqi constitution is a victory for Western, liberal values in the Middle East. The constitution made Islam the religion of state. It stipulates that the civil parliament may pass no legislation that contradicts the established laws of Islam. It looks forward to clerics serving on court benches. It allows individuals to opt out of secular, civil personal status laws (for marriage, divorce, alimony, inheritance) and to choose relgious canon law instead. Islamic law gives girls, e.g., only half the amount of inheritance received by their brothers. Instead of a federal government, the constitution establishes a loose supervisory role for Baghdad and devolves most powers, including claims on future oil finds, on provinces and provincial confederacies, such that it is difficult to see how the country will be able to hold together.
8. Iraq is already in a civil war, so it does not matter if the US simply withdraws precipitately, since the situation is as bad as it can get. No, it isn’t. During the course of the guerrilla war, the daily number of dead has fluctuated, between about 20 and about 60. But in a real civil war, it could easily be 10 times that. Some estimates of the number of Afghans killed during their long set of civil wars put the number at 2.5 million, along with 5 million displaced abroad and more millions displaced internally. Iraq is Malibu Beach compared to Afghanistan in its darkest hours. The US has a responsibility to get out of Iraq responsibly and to not allow it to fall into that kind of genocidal civil conflict.
9. The US can buy off the Iraqis now supporting guerrilla action against US troops. US military and civilian officials in Iraq have on numerous occasions alleged in the press or privately to me that a vast infusion of billions of dollars from the US would dampen down the guerrilla insurgency. In fact, it seems clear that far more Sunni Arabs support the guerrilla movement today than supported it in September of 2004, and more supported it in September of 2004 than had in September of 2003. AP reports that the US has spent $100 million on reconstruction projects in Diyala Province. These community development and infrastructural improvements, often carried out by US troops in conditions of danger, are most praiseworthy. But Diyala is a mess politically and a major center of guerrilla activity (see below), which simply could not be pursued on this scale without substantial local popular support. The Sunni Arab parties, which demand US withdrawal and reject the results of the Dec. 15 elections, carried the province, winning 6 seats.
The guerrillas are to some important extent driven by local nationalism and rejection of foreign occupation, as well as resentment at the marginalization of the Sunni Arab community in the new Iraq. They have a keen sense of national honor, and there is no evidence that they can be bribed into laying down their arms, or that the general populace can be bribed on any significant scale into turning the guerrillas in to the US. Attributing motives of honor to one’s own side and crass economic interests to one’s opponent is a common ploy of political propaganda, but we should be careful about believing our own spin.
Even a simple economic calculation would favor the guerrillas fighting on, however. If they could get back in control of Iraq through a coup, they’d have $50 billion a year in oil revenues to play with. The total US reconstruction aid promised to Iraq is only $18 billion, and much of that will be spent on security– i.e. it won’t benefit most Iraqis.
10. The Bush administration wanted free elections in Iraq. This allegation is simply not true, as I and others pointed out last January. I said then, and it is still true:
‘ Moreover, as Swopa rightly reminds us all, the Bush administration opposed one-person, one-vote elections of this sort. First they were going to turn Iraq over to Chalabi within six months. Then Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years. Then on November 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections in May of 2004. The US and the UK had somehow massaged into being provincial and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani immediately gave a fatwa denouncing this plan and demanding free elections mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. Bush was reportedly “extremely offended” at these two demands and opposed Sistani. Bremer got his appointed Interim Governing Council to go along in fighting Sistani. Sistani then brought thousands of protesters into the streets in January of 2004, demanding free elections. Soon thereafter, Bush caved and gave the ayatollah everything he demanded. Except that he was apparently afraid that open, non-manipulated elections in Iraq might become a factor in the US presidential campaign, so he got the elections postponed to January 2005. This enormous delay allowed the country to fall into much worse chaos, and Sistani is still bitter that the Americans didn’t hold the elections last May. The US objected that they couldn’t use UN food ration cards for registration, as Sistani suggested. But in the end that is exactly what they did. ‘
Iraq’s situation is extremely complex. It is not a black and white poster for an American political party. Good things and bad things are happening there. The American public cannot help make good policy, however, unless the myths are first dispelled.