Bush/Blair Middle East policy and the looming Iraqi Elections

Published January 2nd, 2005 - 01:37 GMT

By John Munro


The recent suicide attack on a US base in Mosul, which according to latest figures killed 24 and injured 57, drew another round of platitudes from President George W. Bush, who still seems convinced that a US victory in Iraq is vital to world peace. He says he remains confident that a positive end is in sight and the upcoming elections  in Iraq, scheduled for June 30, are still on track. “I am confident,” he said, that democracy will prevail in Iraq” and that this would lead “to a more peaceful world.” A couple of days later, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a brief visit to Iraq reassured groups of soldiers that in spite of the difficulties they were facing, the US would triumph and one day they would look back on their service in Iraq with pride.  


Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on another swift, unannounced visit to Baghdad struck a more reasonable note, saying that whatever reservations some people may have had about going to war in Iraq, now the choice was clear: it was between terrorism and freedom.


If only the choice were that simple. What both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair still do not seem to understand is that they are part of the problem and not the solution. Sadly, having invoked every virtue in the canon of liberal democracy, neither the US nor Great Britain can cut and run. They are doomed to go the distance, pursuing their ill-fated policy to the end.    


President Bush also continues to believe that he can separate what happens between Israel and the Palestinians from what is happening in Iraq, a linkage, by contrast, Prime Minister Blair seems to have understood. He made that clear before President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and he said it again after President Bush had been elected. After Mr. Blair’s visit to Baghdad he tried to promote this idea with deeds as well as words by inviting Israelis and Palestinians to London for a conference. “If it’s about a peace settlement,” announced Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “forget it! If it’s about Palestinian reform (i.e. enhancing Israel’s security), may be!”


Mr. Blair’s well-meaning attempt to get the peace process moving again is unfortunately bound to fail, simply because Mr. Sharon has his own agenda and he knows that President Bush will support him. And, as far as President Bush is concerned, even if we were to experience a Damascene conversion, domestic politics will ensure that he continues to support the Zionists’ position. Thus it has been reported that his government is blocking publication of the upcoming UNDP Arab Development report, because its introduction criticizes Israel for lack of progress towards a Middle East peace settlement, which its Arab authors regard as a major obstacle to social and economic progress.


What is ironic, however, is that by pressing for elections in Iraq on January 30, President Bush is not only making peace between Israel and the Palestinians even less likely than it already is but is also storing up a great deal of future trouble for himself.


In Iraq, the minority Sunni Moslem political establishment has yet to be persuaded that free and open elections are a good thing. True, the American backed Sunni President of Iraq’s interim government, Ghazi al-Yawar,  friend of the ruling establishment in Saudi Arabia, has given his cautious approval but the respected elder statesman Adnan Pachacchi has made it clear he is not in favor of holding the elections at the scheduled time. The two main Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are in favor but their enthusiasm is hardly disinterested: a botched election would likely result in the consolidation of their region’s existing autonomy.  Most importantly, the influential, Sunni dominated Association of Moslem Scholars has come out strongly against the elections. In short, if the elections are held on time, Iraq’s influential Sunni minority will be effectively disenfranchised.   


As for the majority Shiites, they dominate an umbrella organization led by a former nuclear scientist, Husain Al Shahristani, called the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). This embraces 22 factions, including some token Sunnis (and a few Turkmens) but formally excluding the young firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, who nonetheless seems ready to go along in the hope that if the UIA sweeps the polls, there will be a place for him at the table. Also supporting the UIA is the seemingly indestructible but discredited Ahmed Chalabi, former darling of the Pentagon, who certainly feels he no longer owes Washington any favors. Most important of all, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, certainly the most influential figure in Iraq, has come out strongly in favor of elections, knowing that it will lead to the overwhelming empowerment of the Shia, especially as Iran’s influential Ayatollah Ha’eri has urged all their Shiite confreres to go to the polls, saying it is nothing less than their civic duty.           

President Bush must therefore face the prospect that an election in Iraq will create a powerful Shiite entity in the Middle East. This will lead to increasing nervousness among the Gulf’s ruling Sunni elite and likely give a boost to such organizations as Hizbollah and Hamas.      


Iran has been playing a subtle game in Iraq, covertly helping their Shiite confreres both morally and materially without provoking international resentment. While the greater part of the insurgent activity in Iraq has been borne by a mixture of Saddam Hussein loyalists, a growing number of disaffected Iraqi Sunnis and a sprinkling of foreign fighters, Iran has been quietly positioning itself to influence events in Iraq after the dust settles. It has reined in some of its more hot-headed supporters and allowed the Sunnis to bear the burden of disrupting Iraq, knowing that a likely victory for the Shiites in the upcoming elections would confer far greater authority than anything Iran could gain by openly siding with its religious confreres in open civil war.


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