Politics & Policy

Listen to The Iraqis

The worsening atmosphere is driving the Iraqi desire to vote.

Half past ten in the morning on Monday, January 3, an Iraqi National Guard unit, escorted by a dozen uniformed U.S. military, pulled up to Abdul Karim Muhammadawi’s headquarters in the Hay al-Jamiah section of Baghdad. Muhammadawi, known to the Iraqis as Abu Hatem, is renowned among Iraqi Shia as “the Robin Hood of the marshes.” Hailing from al-Amarah, during Saddam’s rule, he led a persistent Shia resistance which harried local Baathist commanders and protected political opposition. A member of the now-defunct governing council, he has since joined the Iraqi National Alliance (al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi), the so-called united Shia list endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

As the heavily armed Iraqi national guardsmen rushed toward Muhammadawi’s house, his guard stopped the national-guard captain commanding the small unit. “Don’t you know Abu Hatem?” he asked. “Of course I know him,” the captain responded, “He gave me a hell of a time when I was an officer in the 4th Corps.” The 4th Corps was the Iraqi unit sent by Saddam to liquidate the Shia resistance in the southern marshlands. The Iraqi national guardsmen, who had no warrant, proceeded to ransack and vandalize Abu Hatem’s house before leaving. The violence wrought by former Baathists in American-provided uniforms was gratuitous. Not all Iraqi national guardsmen are corrupt. Many fought in Fallujah and are committed to eradicating the Baathists and terrorists who target them and their families. But some former regime elements spoil the reputation of the entire corps. The presence of Americans in the Muhammadawi raid served only to drive a further wedge between Washington and the people who at first welcomed their American liberators before occupation policy went awry.

Both Americans and Iraqis agree that lack of security is now Iraq’s major problem, but they disagree about how to resolve the situation. Many Iraqis complain about incomplete de-Baathification. In April 2004, in an effort to appease the nascent insurgency, the Coalition Provisional Authority reversed de-Baathification. In Fallujah, they empowered a special brigade largely composed of former Baathists; monthly car bombings throughout the country increased almost 800 percent upon the lifting of the siege and the creation of the Fallujah Brigades.

Upon the advice of United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer appointed Falah Hasan Naqib as interior minister in the interim Iraqi government. Falah was the son of the chief of staff of the Iraqi army under Saddam and, according to several different Iraqis, a major Central Intelligence Agency asset. Less than a month before elections, Naqib refuses to issue weapons permits to Shia politicians and their guards. Traveling without weapons is a dangerous prospect, especially for those targeted for assassination.

Iraq’s Shia feel slighted in other ways. While Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, himself a former Baathist, trumpets his intelligence service as the key to security in the new Iraq, the sad fact is that only three percent of the new service is Shia. By comparison, during Saddam’s rule, Shia composed five percent of the intelligence ministry. General Muhammad Abdullah al-Shahwani, an ex-Baathist himself and a former CIA asset, has instructed that he personally must approve the hiring of any Shia. Not only does such a policy antagonize the chief victims of Saddam’s tyranny, but it also makes for bad intelligence.

Political snubs also continue. John Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq, has refused to meet with Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi may not have survived the interagency battles in Washington, but he has excelled in the Iraqi political arena and has emerged as a leading figure on Sistani’s list of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish candidates. Professional American diplomats and intelligence analysts may approve the snub, but Iraqis say it strikes them as petulant and unprofessional.

Senior American diplomats and National Security Council staff may describe Allawi as Iraq’s Hamid Karzai, but he has proven himself anything but. Allawi promised security, but delivered corruption. He ingratiated himself to Bremer, former CIA chief George Tenet, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice by telling them what they wanted to hear rather than telling them what they needed to hear.

Every day, Iraqis feel the insecurity: While restaurants are open and commerce continues, Iraqis are tense. Iraqi police stop cars; sometimes to check for insurgents and other times to assist them. Craters pock major Baghdad roads, the result of car bombings and improvised explosive devices. American convoys threaten to shoot at any vehicle which comes within 100 yards, snarling traffic as they drive through Baghdad at 30 miles per hour.

Working in Dushanbe at the close of the Tajikistan civil war, I learned to ignore gunfire, but take precautions when I heard return fire. In the once posh Mansur district of Baghdad, not only can residents hear nightly gun battles, but mortar fire and occasional explosions as well. An Iraqi who recently escaped Mosul described seeing a boy no more than 15-years-old waving a severed head in the main street as a warning that the Baathists were back.

Private security contractors contribute to the atmosphere of lawlessness. They have become infamous for threatening on and firing upon locals on the road. One private security contractor recently shot three rounds at a middle-aged Shia professional whom I had met a year ago at the Khadimiya shrine, one of Shia Islam’s holiest. He is now a director-general in one of Iraq’s ministries. He does not know why they fired, but considers himself lucky that the rounds which shattered his windshield missed him. The security contractors did not stop nor does he have anyone to which to complain.

Anonymous American and British diplomats increasingly suggest that elections cannot be held in the deteriorating security situation, but it is the worsening atmosphere that is driving the Iraqi desire to vote. Iraqis look forward to the January 30 poll, the first free elections Iraq has seen in 50 years. Not only those in the Shia south, but also many Baghdadis talk about voting 169, the position of the Iraqi National Alliance on the ballot. Many others say they plan to vote for President Ghazi al-Yawar’s list. Most Kurds will support Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s Kurdish list. Few if any Iraqis say they will support Allawi. He has failed them. Re-Baathification may win King Abdullah of Jordan’s approval and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s consent, but the policy will not improve Iraq’s security. Insurgents and terrorists may kill Iraqis lining up to vote. They may assassinate winning candidates. But only through voting, can Iraqis choose their own government, one that will have the moral authority to undertake remedies forbidden by professional diplomats and intelligence operatives who have had trouble letting go of the old order. It is time to listen to the Iraqis.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of The Middle East Quarterly. He is currently in Baghdad, outside the international zone.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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