Kurdish men buy ice creams in the Mazi supermarket in Dohuk. The supermarket was opened two years ago and is seen as a testiment to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. (Photo by Andrew Testa)
Northern Iraq is getting a bit crowded. About 5,000 Iraqi opposition troops, backed by Iran, have entered the PUK’s territory in Iraqi Kurdistan ostensibly to secure the border when war breaks across the region. Its real purpose, however, may be to repel attacks by the People’s Mujahideen Organization (MKO), an anti-Iranian group based in Iraq and strongly backed by Saddam Hussein. The Iranian troops are part of Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim’s Badr brigade, which is made up of Shi’ites opposed to Saddam Hussein. Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a mainly Shia Muslim group that fought in the failed 1991 uprising against Baghdad in southern Iraq. More recently, SCIRI has taken part in talks between the Iraqi opposition and the U.S.. According to the Web site for the SCIRI, “Hakim has an historical and warm relation with the Kurdish Movements in Iraq since his father gave a religious decree (Fatwa) which forbade the Iraqi army from fighting against the Kurds in Iraq. A mutual agreement as been signed by SCIRI with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani to work against Saddam’s regime. A similar agreement was signed with the Kurdish [sic] Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masood Barzani several years ago.”
This might be true, but one of the reasons the United States didn’t support the 1991 Iraqi intifada that started in Basra was because it was mainly a Shi’ite movement with heavy backing by Iran. (The opposition in the north was, of course, an effort led by the Kurds, who had been waiting for an opportunity to rebel since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.) Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the prospect of Iranian influence expanding to their borders and figuring a weakened Saddam was preferable to the ayatollahs, agreed with the United States that no support to the mainly Shi’ite rebels would be given.
How the Badr brigade fits into the political and military intrigues of Iraqi Kurdistan remains to be seen. Not only does the region play host to the PUK and the KDP, but also to various Islamic parties, Ansar al-Islam, U.S. special forces, several thousand Turkish troops (with more soon to come) the MKO and now the Badr brigade. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, but it can’t be good for U.S. planning.
Or perhaps it doesn’t care. One of the biggest stories yet to be carried by the mainstream American press is the apparent abandonment of democracy in Iraq post-Saddam. Kanan Makiya, author of “Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq” and a leading Iraqi dissident, penned a savage criticism of the Bush administration’s plans to replace Saddam and his cronies not with democratic government but with American generals and soldiers where Ba’ath functionaries once sat. “The plan, as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States-led delegation, further envisages the appointment by the U.S. of an unknown number of Iraqi quislings palatable to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a council of advisers to this military government.”
“We Iraqis hoped and said to our Arab and Middle Eastern brethren, over and over again, that American mistakes of the past did not have to be repeated in the future,” writes Makiya. “Were we wrong? Are the enemies of a democratic Iraq, the ‘anti-imperialists’ and ‘anti-Zionists’ of the Arab world, the supporters of ‘armed struggle’, and the upholders of the politics of blaming everything on the U.S. who are dictating the agenda of the anti-war movement in Europe and the U.S., are all of these people to be proved right?”
We, the democratic Iraqi opposition, are the natural friends and allies of the United States. We share its values and long-term goals of peace, stability, freedom and democracy for Iraq. We are here in Iraqi Kurdistan 40 miles from Saddam’s troops and a few days away from a conference to plan our next move, a conference that some key administration officials have done everything in their power to postpone.
None the less, after weeks of effort in Tehran and northern Iraq, we have prevailed. The meeting will take place. It will discuss a detailed plan for the creation of an Iraqi leadership, one that is in a position to assume power at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place. We will be opposed no doubt by an American delegation if it chooses to attend. Whether or not they do join us in the coming few days in northern Iraq, we will fight their attempts to marginalise and shunt aside the men and women who have invested whole lifetimes, and suffered greatly, fighting Saddam Hussein. (Emphasis added.)
But unless the opposition can seize the oilfields from the American governors, they stand little chance of success in wresting the destiny of their country away from their new masters because they’ll have no money. There is no budget in the State Department for the Iraqi opposition groups next year.
“We don’t feel it’s necessary to fund it any longer,” said Christopher Burnham, assistant secretary for resource management.
In fact, the war has not been budgeted at all! No one seems to know very much at all about what the war will cost, what will come after Saddam and how to manage the damn place after the shooting dies down a bit.
“Conquerors always call themselves liberators,” said Sami Abdul-Rahman, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish administration, in a reference to Mr. Bush’s speech last week in which he said U.S. troops were going to liberate Iraq.
Mr. Abdul-Rahman said the U.S. had reneged on earlier promises to promote democratic change in Iraq. “It is very disappointing,” he said. “In every Iraqi ministry they are just going to remove one or two officials and replace them with American military officers.”
Last summer, I interviewed Mr. Abdul-Rahman. He gave me the copies of the two Kurdish constitutions the Kurdistan regional government had drafted. At the time, he could not have been more gracious and hopeful, assuring me, the skeptical reporter, of America’s good intentions. The irony should be obvious.
The cynicism should be as well. Tony Blair made what many felt was the clearest moral case this weekend for removing Saddam, for “liberating” the Iraqi people. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said, “I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.”
By not supporting a democratic Iraq, by appointing a controversial figure such as Ahmed Chalabi as provisional leader, by inviting Turks to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan and promoting some gauzy ill-thought-out vision of a democratic Middle East imposed by force of arms, the Big Idea idealism, which never rested comfortably on the shoulders of a president who detests complexity, comes off as callow, cynical and … what are the words? Oh, yes: “Absolute bullshit.” The ideas and principles upon which the United States was founded — “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice for all” — and for which we allegedly fought and won two world wars and the Cold War, have become mere words, talking points and awkwardly mouthed slogans used to make a case for a war that no one except for a small junta in Washington wants.
People in the pro-war camp often scoff at the “peaceniks” and “appeasers” of the ant-war crowd, calling them naï¿½ve and saying they are consigning the Iraqis to oppression if they are opposed the war. But who are really the naï¿½ve ones, I wonder, if the hawks believe this is a war of liberation?
(By the way, readers can find a piece I wrote back in November on the mixed signals given by the United States regarding democracy in Iraq here.)