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Democracy in Iraq: the dodgiest deception of all

Simon Jenkins

THREE public deceptions preceded Britain’s invasion of Iraq. As yet only two have come to light. One was that Saddam Hussein presented an urgent and substantive threat to Britain. That was untrue. The second was that an attack on him accorded with international law. That was untrue. The third deception still lurks in the dark, shrouded in spin and fog. Yet it is massive in its presumption. It holds that the West can, by force of arms, bring stability, democracy and freedom wherever it chooses to set foot, even in Saddam’s Iraq. On Monday Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile from Haiti to the Central African Republic. His fate should be a warning to all members of Washington’s handpicked Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad. President Aristide was a left-wing democrat who, despite being re-elected in 2000, contrived to upset both the French and the Americans. Draconian IMF “adjustments” were forced on his poor people and he was denied aid to control the resulting discontent. His disgruntled militias turned to banditry and toppled him. The Americans, who backed President Aristide to the hilt in the 1990s, must now find someone else to rule Haiti. It will cost them dear.

In Baghdad, the Governing Council on Monday agreed something called a transitional administrative law, supposedly to guide the hand-over from the Americans to Iraqi sovereignty on June 30. The deal was reached after the Americans told the 25 members to agree fast or they would not be worth two fleas in the Baghdad market. Last year’s stately progress to democracy has become today’s headlong rush. Washington is desperate to leave Baghdad by November’s presidential election.

The deal duly left unresolved such matters as the make-up of a transitional government, the status of Islamic law, the meaning of “federal” and the extent of Kurdish self-rule. Freedom of speech and religion is proclaimed, but so is Islam as “the official religion”. Since the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani knows that elections within a year will give him absolute power, he could afford to concede the Americans their moment of joyous illusion.

Iraq a year ago posed no threat to anyone outside its borders. I wrote at the time that Saddam was still vulnerable to possible intervention because of his contempt for United Nation’s Resolution 1441. But no shred of evidence then or since has explained why America and Britain felt obliged to defy the world by suddenly pre-empting 1441’s inspection regime. Nothing has explained an invasion so urgent that soldiers were not even properly equipped. I still reel that so many Britons believed what they were told about this war. If they and the present denizens of Downing Street and the White House were thus able to deceive themselves and others during a real nuclear stand-off, God help us all.

It is sad that those who cheered on the war now feel obliged to applaud every coalition deed like sycophants at a Castro rally. Compulsory prewar paranoia has given way to compulsory postwar euphoria. Past deceptions are forgotten since Iraq is seen as progressing towards stable democracy. The end will justify the means, you all wait and see.

Having visited Iraq and met some of those involved in yesterday’s deal, I can only wish them good luck. After 30 years of tyranny, rape by UN sanctions, invasion and now military anarchy, Iraqis deserve a break. My instinct would indeed be to hail Monday’s deal as heralding a new dawn.

Yet this would be ludicrously naive. The idea that over the next year Iraq will blossom into Western-style democracy through free elections is fantasy. So is any hope of civil, religious and gender freedoms in a united federal state. Such a political Eden might just have been conceivable had the Americans and British staged a “clean coup” last March, had they seized Saddam’s state apparatus and bent it to maintaining security and prosperity.

They did no such thing. They set in train the most incompetent regime seen in the Middle East since Lawrence of Arabia’s two days of chaos in Damascus 1916. Nothing was done to protect property, maintain order, revive business or secure middle-class loyalty. Nothing was done to prepare for elections. Saddam’s prisons were refilled. Local opinion was alienated at every turn. Commanders went out of their way to incite terrorists and misfits from home and abroad.

I am puzzled that America’s rulers, from a nation composed of immigrants, should find it so hard to understand foreigners. The veteran US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, was asked in 1995 by a Vietnamese war leader whether he had read any book on Vietnam before going to war on Hanoi. Did he not know that Vietnam would never be a Chinese lackey? Mr McNamara admitted he had read nothing.

When I asked the coalition boss, Paul Bremer, why he had so little faith in his own governing council, he complained that they refused to behave like “proper democrats”. They should “get out there and form political parties, start newspapers and radio stations”, he said. He had no clue about Arab politics. Yet he disbanded the only two quasi-political institutions, the Baath party and the army, and wrecked Iraq’s economy by allowing unrestricted imports.

Even Mr Bremer must know in his heart that democracy is not going to happen in Iraq. An invader cannot impose institutions and values which have taken decades, if not centuries, to develop elsewhere. It cannot impose an ideology as if it were a can of Coke. Just one pre-requisite of democracy is that all groups share sufficient national cohesion for a minority to acquiesce in majority rule. Only a fool could say that of today’s Iraq. Democracy will merely serve as a transition to Shia theocracy Iran-style, while Sunnis and Kurds break loose. Yet Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair cite Iraq in the same breath as postwar Germany and Japan. Was world statesmanship ever so dumb?

Of course the UN, Washington’s new friend in need, persuaded Ayatollah al-Sistani to delay his demand for elections until (early) 2005. He will have his Sharia. The Shias will have their revenge on the Sunnis, while the Sunnis will get their separatist retaliation in first, as with outrages such as the bombs in Karbala yesterday. Instability is inevitable without a strong central power. Baghdad may well become another Beirut 1982. The Kurds and their peshmerga units seem certain to secede. Along the border there will be “ethnic cleansing” galore. “Democracy” in such states is code for partition. It was in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and now in Afghanistan. It will be so in Iraq. The most likely outcome for post-coalition Iraq is a country split in three, none of them a democracy.

Yes, this is a prophecy of doom. It is also what is most likely to happen. I only hope responsible policymakers are preparing for it. How far will Britain go to guarantee the Kurdish region’s borders? How far will we try to curb the censors and antifeminist mullahs of Karbala and Najaf? How far will we offer protection or political asylum to persecuted Sunnis? What contingencies are in place for returning to patrol Baghdad if it is enveloped by a Sunni-Shia civil war? What happens if some new strong man nationalises Halliburton’s assets?

I have seen none of these questions addressed, only burble about Iraq becoming a “cradle of democracy”. Last year America and Britain occupied a country ruled by a dictator (like now-beloved Libya) that was at least a functioning state. After a year in absolute coalition control, Iraq’s public and private sectors are barely back to their condition under Saddam, when they were under sanctions and on a war footing. The Coalition ’s performance has been truly abysmal.

The sole remaining justification for this venture is that autocracy really will be replaced by stability and democracy. I cannot see how this is going to happen. We have been deceived twice over Iraq, with dodgy intelligence and dodgy law. Now it is not we but the Iraqis who must face the dodgiest deception of all, that they may not get security or democracy after all, only a shattered nation. The end, we are told, will justify the means. What end?