An Iraqi Nationalist Party is Needed

When it comes to the elections held in Iraq on 30 January, the greatest confusion among the American people is in failing to understand Iraqi nationhood.

There are practically no US citizens who think of themselves as being Protestant, Catholic or Jewish before they think of themselves as Americans.

When it comes to Iraq, though, Americans have been educated to think that all Iraqis think of themselves first as members of a Muslim sect, and only then as Iraqis.

The difference is crucial, in that the erroneous assumption is leading President George Bush, the US government, and American intellectuals on a path that ends with a break-up of Iraq into three independent states, one Kurdish, one Sunni and one Shia.

[Isn't that the plan all along maybe?]

While the influential newspaper The New York Times editorially inveighed against such division after the elections, its commentary pages have been hospitable to those who are advocates for division.

On 1 February, Peter Galbraith, a long-time advocate of Kurdish independence, was given the lead space in paper to repeat his call for division.

The very next day, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, repeated his argument that "the only workable government would be a confederation with three largely autonomous regions".

I might have been of a similar mind had it not been for my contacts in the US intelligence community who assured me that the most powerful political force in Iraq is nationalism, not sectarianism, and this explains the election turnout better than anything we have been reading and seeing in the news media.

Stephen Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst of Middle East affairs who has been following developments while in retirement, some years ago explained to me that for most of Iraq's history since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the second world war, sectarianism was the rule, nationalism only nascent.

It will, of course, look like a puppet government to the insurgents.

It was only during the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that nationhood took root and blossomed, as Shia, Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmen fought shoulder to shoulder to defend their secular government against Tehran's call for Shia fundamentalism in a theocratic state.

I believe this is true, or the people of Iraq of all sects would not have submitted to the cost in lives to defeat the Iranians. And that includes the Kurds, 85% of whom fought against Tehran's attempt at the time to spread theocratic fundamentalism across the Islamic universe.

It is true that early in the war, many Iraqi Shia deserted to the Iranian side, believing they would be welcomed with open arms, but they were thrown in POW camps instead.

As Iraqi and Iranian Shia encountered and killed each other in battles over Shia cities such as Basra, the spirit of nationalism must have taken hold as the Iraqi soldiers chose to defend the homeland instead of laying down their arms to welcome their "fellow" Shia from Iran.

With this perspective, it immediately becomes clear why the elections were essentially meaningless: The way the balloting was constructed, there was no venue for an expression of Iraqi nationalism. There was no nationalist party.

The electorate was offered essentially sectarian slates, and even those were created either by Iraqi exiles who had sided with Iran during the war that gave birth to Iraqi nationalism, or which were identified with clerics such as Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian by birth who will be biased in favour of a theocratic state or something close to it.

The only nationalist on the scene, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sat out the election and so did his nationalist followers. The American press played it incorrectly as a boycott by Sunni Muslims, but it was rather an abstention by Iraqi nationalists. Al-Sadr is of course a Shia, but first and foremost he is a nationalist.

The New York Times reported for several weeks that al-Sadr was negotiating with Ahmad Chalabi, another Iraqi exile who had sided with Tehran in the war, but obviously nothing came of that.

It was preposterous in any event to think al-Sadr would team up with a man he would have to see as a quisling. Chalabi not only teamed with the Iranians, but was an architect of the American war against his own country.

The very idea that the American-appointed prime minister of the interim government, Iyad Allawi, would hold a similar post in the new government arising out of the elections is ridiculous, but of course that is what the Bush administration is negotiating to achieve.

It would simply confirm to the Iraqi nationalists that the US agenda is a permanent imperialist outpost in Baghdad, to manage the oil regions and protect Israel against any threats real or imagined, come what may.

One of the things we always tend to forget when we get "good news" from Iraq, as there appears to be with the voter turnout, is that as bad as Saddam Hussein may have been in his 30 years in power, the number of Iraqi men, women and children who died as a result of US sanctions and war - to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that it did not have - is in the order of one million, or one out of every 20.

The way the balloting was constructed, there was no venue for an expression of Iraqi nationalism. There was no nationalist party.

This is why Americans had to hope the weapons inspectors would find WMD and the imminent threat they would pose to the region and the world. That alone would have undermined the anti-war arguments and given justification for the invasion and the dozen years of killing sanctions.

The president and supporters of the war can celebrate the election, but they in no way alter the facts on the ground. The election was meaningless.

I have rarely agreed with Senator Ted Kennedy on any major issue, but he is positively correct when he says there will be no chance of improvement in Iraq until the United States is gone.

The internet is now bristling with reminders of Vietnam and how the national elections there in September 1967 offered so much promise of victory. For example:

US Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror
by Peter Grose, Special to The New York Times (9/4/1967: p. 2)

WASHINGTON, Sept 3 - United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

As bad as Saddam Hussein may have been in his 30 years in power, the number of Iraqi men, women and children who died as a result of US sanctions and war - to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that it did not have - is in the order of one million.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here. Pending more detailed reports, neither the State Department nor the White House would comment on the balloting or the victory of the military candidates, Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for president, and Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, the candidate for vice president….

Before the results of the presidential election started to come in, the American officials warned that the turnout might be less than 80 per cent because the polling place would be open for two or three hours less than in the election a year ago. The turnout of 83 per cent was a welcome surprise. The turnout in the 1964 United States Presidential election was 62 per cent.

What do I expect now? It will be another several days before the interim government announces the election results and some while before the prime minister and vice presidents are chosen.

It will, of course, look like a puppet government to the insurgents. Can it be turned around? Perhaps, but that would take a nationalist movement, the likes of which we have not yet seen emerge.

Jude Wanniski is a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, expert on supply-side economics and founder of Polyconomics, which helps to interpret the impact of political events on financial markets.

The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera, but i'll give my endorsement any day if it counts for anything...

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