Monday, January 19, 2004

The thousands of Iraqis who took part in the recent wave of demonstrations that swept the country in support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for general elections are sending a strong message to Iraqi and American politicians. And the message is simple: “Count us in.”

The Iraqi people feel marginalized. “We were passive observers in the past,” says an Iraqi journalist who is a Shia from Baghdad. “We still are passive observers.”

The failure of the old Iraqi state was primarily caused by distancing the people from the decision-making process. No one living in Iraq today has ever voted for a head of state.

Following liberation, many Iraqis, especially the oppressed Shia and Kurdish populations, felt that at long last the country was coming back to them; that it was no longer Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They were excited that a new chapter had opened and a new Iraq — an Iraq that does not marginalize them — was in the making. But a series of meetings were then held behind closed doors. The people only saw, through Arab satellite channels, the Iraqi and U.S. participants entering and leaving the meetings with an occasional general and noncommittal statement to the press.

The rebuilding of the new state still has not taken the shape of a national project. So far, political parties recognized by the United States have simply scrambled to grab as big a piece of the pie as they can.

These political parties have no experience in nation building. Worse, some have a stronger commitment to Iraq’s neighbors — their old allies in the prewar world of exile politics — than they do to building a healthy state. They are a product of opposition politics and have not yet been able to remake themselves as advocates for a constituency in the face of great change. None seems to have a program, a platform, or even a vision, to remake the country.

The Kurdish leadership in the north is asking for federalism, but the street is much more hard-line. The Kurdish leaders are leftovers of the struggle against Baghdad and the fight for autonomy. But the young street is much more confident of its Kurdish self and does not see federalism as a victory. They see it as a concession.

The Iraqi Shia street, who saw the failure of both the mullah-led regime next door in Iran and of Arab nationalism, seek a moderate, secular state in which they will take majority position. But they are not represented. Under Ba’athist rule, political organizing inside the country was a surefire ticket to Saddam’s prisons. Parties therefore developed clandestinely. Today’s Shia leadership of mullahs and politicians spent years under the sponsorship of Iran and have another agenda than the street. They want an Iranian-style theocracy.

The Islamist contingent and their faux-liberal business partners on the Iraqi Governing Council managed to pass a recent bill that repealed the progressive civil status law of the country. This sent thousands of angry women running for the streets in protest. (L. Paul Bremer has so far not signed the bill.) But the Islamists’ effort to ramrod the repressive legislation through is a clear illustration of their intentions to move toward the application of Sharia law.

Whether Shia or Sunni, Arab or Kurd, the liberal and democratic majority in the country have not yet found a voice for themselves. Moreover, the United States has not deemed to consult with the people of the country.

It is typical in intergovernmental relations to deal leadership to leadership and that is what the United States has been doing in Iraq — but in this case, a hand-picked leadership in a country with no transparency and no accountability. More significantly, in Iraq, the opposition-made leadership bares little resemblance to the reality on the ground.

Exacerbating the situation is a near complete lack of effective local media to inform the people about activities in the corridors of power. As a result, information rides on rumors and half-truths circulated in the street.

The street is isolated from both the leadership and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Hence the simplistic call for an election and the one man, one vote concept that aroused the passion of many Iraqis. Without giving much thought to the various obstacles and reminders, like Sunday’s car bomb, about the difficulty of holding a truly free election, they see it as the only way for them to participate in the political process in the country.

This popular response to the call for the election is a byproduct of the isolation of the people.

With the current setup, an election might prove disastrous for the United States and for those Iraqis who want to see a liberal, democratic, pluralistic and federal Iraq. Mullahs and warlords with ties to neighbors who do not want to see a successful Iraq will tell — and are telling — the people that the United States is the cause of their continuing misery. They will also be the ones who will take the winning seat in any forthcoming elections.

The United States needs to reach out beyond these leaders to the silent but liberal, secular and democratic-minded majority within the population if they hope to rebuild the country as healthy model in the Middle East.

Hiwa Osman is an editor and journalism trainer with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in Baghdad.

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