Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Extremism, Elections and Inevitability

I've said many times that the invasion of Iraq would inevitably lead to the point we're now at and this was one of the reasons why I originally opposed the war. This is a lazy simplification on my part so here's a slightly more detailed explanation of what I mean. There's a sense in which this is still a sort of Hari Seldon approach to Iraq, treating people as nothing more than mindless predictible drones, but it is nevertheless true that people in large groups often do act in entirely predictable ways. This approach obviously (and unfortunately) ignores the many individuals who are courageous enough to fight against the will of the "mob". All too often, sadly, the mob tramples these brave individuals underfoot. This isn't an Iraqi problem or one which applies to any specific group; it's a human problem. Such, as they often say, is life.

It is not actually the case that it was inevitable that Iraq would turn towards fundamentalism after the removal of Saddam. The Iran friendly Shiite fundamentalists who dominate the UIA did not have widespread support in Iraq in March 2003. Some Shiite Iraqis were sympathetic to these views but certainly nowhere near the 50%+ the UIA appear to have polled in Baghdad in the recent elections.

The reason I opposed the war and have called the current situation "inevitable" is because of the ignorance, incompetance and downright stupidity of the invaders. It seeemed clear from the very start that the people who had taken it upon themselves to build a new Iraq didn't actually have the faintest idea how they were going to do it or what it would entail. Consider this example, which was related to Peter Oborne by Peter Galbraith:
[In] January 2003 the President invited three members of the Iraqi opposition to join him to watch the Super Bowl. In the course of the conversation the Iraqis realized that the President was not aware that there was a difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. He looked at them and said, "You mean...they're not, you know, there, there's this difference. What is it about?"
Whether you believe this or not is up to you. The fact that the coalition was completely taken aback by the complexities and difficulties of the occupation however, is no longer in dispute. That lack of preparedness was obvious before the invasion began and it was, for me, a recipe for disaster. That was what made the current situation inevitable.

So, I would argue, it has proved.

Under Saddam, religious Shiites were persecuted and prevented from practising many of their traditional public celebration. Removing this repression was always likely to lead to a sudden movement in the opposite direction. It's like releasing the pressure on several million springs. The coalition, rather than taking any steps to try to dampen that effect, looked on in suprise and confusion as huge numbers of the springs rebounded straight in their faces. They seemed to think that the springs would immediately and uniformly find an equilibrium in the form of a lovely secular democracy. When that didn't happen, they tried to stamp them back down. Which just made it worse. It was, frankly, idiotic. It'd be funny if people weren't dead.

That's only part of it though. The fall of Saddam brought with it a power vacuum. Before the invasion, the coalition had shown no signs that it was aware that this would happen, despite the fact that it was screamingly obvious. When it did happen, the coalition stood with mouths agape as law and order disintegrated around them. Farcical, is the kindest description I can think of.

Others were far better prepared for the security vacuum though. It was filled, at least in part, by militia groups such as the Badr Brigade and the Mehdi Army. These militias were able to provide local residents with a level of security where the coalition were not. They also became the de facto police force in many areas, often imposing their own strict Islamic laws down the barrel of a gun. The militias also fostered a spirit of community by providing social services for the worst off and generally making themselves useful in their neighbourhoods. And they provided a platform from which religious Shiite preachers were able to successfuly disseminate their beliefs to a wider audience, especially in impoverished areas such as Sadr City. The collapse of the coalition's justification for the invasion raised serious questions regarding the motivations of the "invaders" and only added to the success of these activities.

The reason they were successful was that they had made strategic preparations for the fall of Saddam. Their preparations were based on the actual realities of Iraq after the fall of Saddam and not on some pie in the sky notions of sweets and flowers and happy ever after. And, of course, the coalition did not have any strategies in place to control the power of the clerics and their militias as it expanded to fill the vacuum. Not surprising since they hadn't expected the vacuum in the first place.

These militia groups are now hugely influencial in large parts of Iraq and the coalition does not appear to be able to do anything to challenge that state of affairs. When the coalition talks of handing control to local security forces in an area they are most often actually handing control to the local militia. That the militias affected the results of the recent elections is hard to dispute. Their very existence on the ground would have exerted a significant influence. The idea that there has been a free and fair election in Iraq in these circumstances seems to me to be absurd.

Whether there was also "traditional" election fraud is probably always going to be a matter of debate. The UIA does appear to have achieved an extraordinarily high level of support compared to the secular parties in a country with a strong history of secularism. Iraq does have a large well educated middle class and its hard to see what happened to their votes. Whatever the truth of the allegations, it appears that these results are going to stand.

The United Iraq Alliance, the "Iranian list", is going to be the dominant power in the new Iraq for the next four years. What chance a free and fair election in Iraq four years from now under those circumstances? Will it be free and fair like an Iranian election? It's an extremely depressing thought.

With intelligent well informed leaders and thorough and careful planning, the coalition might have had a chance at achieving some of the goals they set out for Iraq in March 2003. But it was clear in early 2003 that there was a distinct lack of thorough and careful planning and that the coalition were going to make a frightful mess of the occupation as a result. It was clear that the coalition had no plans for peace in Iraq but only plans for war. It was clear that a section of Iraqi society would attempt to achieve a religious Shiite dominated government and it was clear that Iran would attempt to support them in that endeavour. It was clear that the coalition had not planned for this. In those circumstances, what's happening in Iraq today was inevitable. It needn't have been.

The leaders who got it so wrong need to be held to account. I believe that they have shown themselves incapable of carrying out their responsibilities competantly. Their rash actions and simplistic ideologies have made the world a more dangerous place. And today, as I write this, they are still the ones making important foreign policy decisions on behalf of their citizens. If that doesn't terrify you, I don't know what will.

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