Iraq's Plight of Progress

Sunday, January 30, 2005: a critical date for Iraq, the United States, the Middle East and the entire freedom-loving world.

Sunday, January 30, 2005: a critical date for Iraq, the United States, the Middle East and the entire freedom-loving world.  Not only does it mark Iraq's first democratic elections in generations, but the event, no matter the results, represents a significant victory for the Bush administration and a blast of fresh governing air for the entire Arab and Islamic world.

As important, the election of a National Assembly represents a smashing defeat for terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular.  Despite the massed mischief of Baathist ex-members of Saddam Hussein's hated regime, Syria, Iran and anti-democratic jihadists from Muslim community's worldwide, large numbers of Iraqis will vote in an open election for the first time in most of their lives.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian exile designated by Osama bin Laden to head Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has spoken for all who wish freedom and the free market no good in the country.  Declaring "all-out war" against democracy, he has openly called for civil war, a cry not well-received by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, Sunni and Shia alike.  Oddly, his objective of defeating the democratic process seems to be shared by Bush antagonists worldwide, including not a few in the United States.

Given continued resolve by George W. Bush and the freely elected leaders who will take office in Baghdad, however, the doomsday seers and the terrorists in the field will lose.  Much like Afghanistan, where the negative nabobs said we were stumbling into a quagmire - only to see free elections, marked by universal suffrage, followed by relative peace - Iraq is on a difficult but determined path to creating an open society.  Veterans of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other hotspots of the 1960s and 70s who have studied the situation on the ground in Iraq and earlier in Afghanistan, see little to justify claims of strong similarities between the two sets of regional conflict.  As one who has covered both, I concur.

This is not to say there will not be a host of challenges, post January 30.

  • Al-Zarqawi and his ilk, foreign and domestic, will continue their efforts to undermine the democratic process in Baghdad.
  • The National Assembly will have long and heated debates as it works to select by two-thirds majority a President and two Vice Presidents and, later, fashion a constitution acceptable to all Iraqis.
  • The Syrian and Iranian regimes will continue supporting efforts to destabilize Iraqi society, covertly supported by Saudi interests.
  • At the same time, in the most pernicious challenge of all, Iran's power-happy mullahs will seek to control the governing process in Baghdad.

There is little doubt the Shia will gain significant, effectively controlling, power in the elections.  Equally, within the Shia group of elected assembly men and women, the United Iraqi Alliance [UIA] formed under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will be the single strongest Shia force.  Al-Sistani, born in Iran, is nevertheless strongly opposed to Tehran's mullahcracy, on the grounds that clerics should not be directly involved in political activities, rather serving as guides and advisors to those actively participating in politics.

The danger comes from two political groups within the UIA, respectively led by Ahmed Chalabi and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.  Both individuals have strong ties to Tehran, and both receive aid and advice from their mullah-mates.  Although they have had significant differences in the past, a governing alliance of convenience brokered by Iran is a disturbing possibility.  Working within the loose UIA structure, the two could take advantage of Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani's shunning of direct political activity, effectively to push him to the sidelines.

Ahmed Chalabi's perfidy is by now well-known.  Having left Iraq more than 40 years ago, the artful Chalabi went on to a checkered career.  Convicted of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from his family-owned Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan, he later received a reported $100 million or more into his London-based Iraqi National Council coffers from the U.S. Department of Defense, for highly questionable information about the Saddam regime and its opposition.  At the same time he was counseling the Defense Department, Chalabi was a frequent flyer to Tehran where he informed senior government officials about U.S. plans vis-à-vis Iraq and received misinformation to transmit back to his Washington clients.

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim was the first exiled Shia cleric to return to Iraq after Saddam's fall, arriving in the town of Kut in mid-April of 2003.  He had lived in Tehran for 23 years and understudied his brother who formed the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI].  Unlike brother Muhammad Bakr, Abdel Aziz never attained the rank of ayatollah, and instead concentrated on developing and leading SCIRI's militant wing, the Badr Brigades.  SCIRI was financially supported by Tehran for nearly 20 years, with the Badr Brigades trained by Iran's infamous Revolutionary Guard.

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has repeatedly said he supports a secular government; however, three factors suggest that he could actually be seeking direct political power.  As a member of Iraq's Interim Governing Council, he proposed that Islam's restrictive Sharia Law be adopted as the basis for family and civil law.  In addition, the continually circulated rumors that he will agree to serve as President if elected are considered by many to be more than a spontaneous campaign.  Finally, Al-Hakim's evident working alliance with Chalabi suggests he is seeking at the least to amass the necessary votes in the National Assembly to control the Presidential selection process, if not be elected to the post himself.