April 20, 2003, 10:00 P.M.
There is much talk about what a post-war Iraqi government will look like, and not all of it is coming from the US. There seems to be a strong message from the major Islamic religious parties in Iraq that they will play a defining role in the future of their country. The free and democratic elections that the US and Britain want may well produce the sort of fundamentalist theocracy that we clearly don’t want.
Speaking on ABC news this morning, Ahmad Chalabi said that “there is a role for the Islamic religious parties, including the Shi’a religious parties,” in the new Iraqi government “because they have some constituencies. But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or any theocracy on the Iraqi people.” The obvious question is: says who? Chalabi may be popular with the US because he speaks English well and talks of democracy like the Bush administration does, but Chalabi and other returning exiled leaders don’t seem to hold much sway within the country. The religious leaders who have held their constituencies together throughout the reign of Saddam, on the other hand, wield a lot of power. They chose to flex some of that muscle with a joint prayer service between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, the likes of which has not been seen in recent memory, and followed that up with a good old Yankee-go-home march through the streets of Baghdad.
Central to the message of this peaceful demonstration was a call for unity among the nations Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish populations. Barry James of the International Herald Tribune reported that “Amid cheers at the Abu Haneefa Al Nu’man mosque in Baghdad a leading cleric warned Americans on Friday to get out of Iraq before they are forced out. Thousands of people took to the streets crying ‘No to America, no to Saddam!’” Another cleric apparently warned that “long queues of holy warriors were lining up to fight the Americans.”
Ahmad Chalabi is the head of the Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqi exiles which have enjoyed US support in their mostly ineffectual resistance to the regime of Saddam Hussein. This group, and Chalabi in particular, now enjoy the Pentagon’s backing in their efforts to develop an Iraqi constitution and to hold democratic elections. The problem is that they have no voice within Iraq, and their ties to the US will hamper any efforts on their part to play a role in post-war Iraq. The INC long functioned as a US-backed-sort-of-umbrella-organization purporting to represent the numerous Iraqi opposition groups operating outside of the country. This loose confederation has deteriorated because many of the constituent groups have begun to meet separately, mainly to undermine Chalabi. What’s more, Chalabi went on record as saying that the United Nations should play only a limited role in the reconstruction of Iraq because it had been “less than helpful and dealt with Iraq under Saddam Hussein like it was a normal state.” Other exiled leaders are certain to be more pragmatic on the issue of UN involvement. It is important to note also that if Chalabi cannot hold together a coalition of opposition groups outside the country, he certainly cannot command the attention of the dissonant voices within the country.
If there is any hope for avoiding another dictatorship or fundamentalist theocracy in Iraq, it will only be realized through a true multinational effort. The US simply has too much baggage in the region to go it alone in directing the course for the future of Iraq. We also have a lousy track record and aligning ourselves with someone like Chalabi, who has no support from, and in fact is disregarded by, factions within Iraq does not bode well for us.
There is no history or political precedent for the establishment of a democracy in Iraq. There is no older society on earth, and yet there is no historical or cultural trend that could suggest that democratic institutions could survive in a society that has its legal, economic, and social foundations in the teachings Islam. In fact, the teachings of Islam may be counter-intuitive to the establishment of a western style democracy. Any such form of government would have to be artificially imposed on the people of Iraq and for that reason it will fail. Clearly our recent efforts and our interests in the region will not allow us to simply walk away without having a say in what happens in Iraq. However, there is a real danger that, having won the war, we could lose the peace. In asking for free and open elections we will be asking for the creation of a government that reflects the will of the people of Iraq. This is where our arrogant foreign policy may be our undoing. After all, what will we do if, after there are free and open democratic elections, a theocracy is established and we are told to pack up, go home and stay out of Iraqi affairs? Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it.