Iraq: January 14, 2004


While no Arab state has yet successfully adopted democracy, a chaotic campaign for votes has been underway for months in Iraq. While Western media prefer, for competitive reasons, to only interview Iraqis who are complaining or threatening, the majority of Iraqis know that there are facing a once in a lifetime chance to establish a fair and efficient government. Since Saddam's downfall, the population has been trying to find out how to make democracy work. There are a few very old Iraqis who remember a time, half a century ago, when the Iraqi parliament had real clout, even though the king had the final say, and Iraqi politics was loud and chaotic, but not fatal to those who lost votes. But most Iraqis get their most believable information from family and friends who have emigrated since Saddam took power. About ten percent of the population fled in the past two decades, most to adjacent countries. But some 200,000 went to the United States, and a somewhat larger number to Europe and other Western democracies (like Australia). All of these migrants left family behind in Iraq, who now get money, goods and news from their overseas kin. The news about democracy is good, and bad. The good is that it works, at least to the extent that the cops are honest, the courts just and corrupt politicians go to jail. The bad is that many Iraqis don't believe that all the bad old politics can be driven out of Iraq, and good new politics brought in. 

For thousands of years, the area that is now Iraq has been ruled by what amounts to warlords. The earliest written records from the area refer to the first ruler not as a king, but as a "strongman," backed by a lot of tough guys with spears. It's hard to buck traditions that go back over 5,000 years. The tribal and religious leaders that have provided some protection from the strongman of the day are also ambitious. For example, the senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, is insisting on national elections to choose the people who will lead Iraq this July. Sistani knows full well that, without a census, or functioning local governments, such an election will be vulnerable to manipulation by the Shia clergy and their armed followers. In the north, the Kurds are driving Arabs and Turkmen out of provinces long considered Kurdish, but that may no longer have a majority of Kurds.

Setting up a nationwide voting organization would take at least a year, although this has already been done in some areas and some honest elections have been run. But there are always tribal and religious leaders, corrupt politicians and traditional "strongmen", ready to corrupt the balloting process. When the United States was founded, we had a few corrupt politicians and some outspoken religious leaders, but not the huge network of tribal leaders, major religious figures and corrupt business and political figures found in Iraq. The old order does not want to be replaced, and certainly not by the "will of the people." For thousands of years, "the people" existed to be exploited and tormented. It's all about tradition, and the thugs, bullies and crooks wanting to preserve their way of life. Oddly enough, this is a story that rarely gets told. But if you do business at the ground level, as thousands of American civil affairs troops do, you quickly run into the ancient ways of doing political business in Iraq. Most Iraqis would like to see it all changed. But first there must be a civil war between the new and the old. The civil war between Shia, Sunni and Kurd is easier to sort out by comparison. But the civil war that counts more than any other is the one between doing things the old, corrupt and destructive ways, or trying something new and different. Something new like real democracy and honest government. Americans take if for granted, but most Iraqis consider it something of a fairy tale, that just might be true.



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