Liberal despair will not help Iraq now

Iraqis are refusing to allow war to disrupt their lives - and are greeted with silence by progressive Brits
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The Independent Online

Back in February 2003, an Iraqi asylum-seeker living in Glasgow started e-mailing me, explaining his reasons for supporting the war. Over the past few weeks, my replies to him have been permeated by my hopeless, sullen mood. He has always been polite, even when we disagree strongly. But then last week, he snapped: "You can afford to despair. You aren't in Baghdad. You aren't in Basra. What do I say to my family [if I took your position]? Well thanks a lot for your support. The rest of us will keep on fighting for Iraqi democracy without you."

Back in February 2003, an Iraqi asylum-seeker living in Glasgow started e-mailing me, explaining his reasons for supporting the war. Over the past few weeks, my replies to him have been permeated by my hopeless, sullen mood. He has always been polite, even when we disagree strongly. But then last week, he snapped: "You can afford to despair. You aren't in Baghdad. You aren't in Basra. What do I say to my family [if I took your position]? Well thanks a lot for your support. The rest of us will keep on fighting for Iraqi democracy without you."

He's right. How can we despair while a terrorised country fights for democracy? There are two main forms of pessimism spreading through British opinion like dry rot. I can understand (and share) one of those fears: that the US has no intention of promoting democracy in Iraq. But many people - mostly on the right - have begun to declare that Iraqis themselves do not want democracy for their country. Last week a Tory MP said casually to me: "Iraqis don't want to vote. They want to visit Mecca and chop off their neighbours' hands."

I hear this argument every day, not just from cab drivers. Peter Hitchens has typically asked: "You think [Iraq] can be turned into a democracy? Don't be so silly. This semi-medieval society, with its inbred clans and all-powerful imams, does not want to be like Britain or America. As I have said from the start, Iraq will end up with a new dictator."

You can only believe this if you ignore several key facts. Northern Iraq has been a thriving democracy for more than a decade now, and it is no less "tribal" than the rest of the country. The population has more PhDs than any other country in the region except Israel, and the fifth of the Iraqi population exiled by Saddam - now returning - bring with them remarkable wealth and knowledge of democratic societies. In poll after poll, Iraqis have said they want their country to be democratic; more people chose the American political system as the one they wanted to imitate than Saudi Arabia's. Fewer than 5 per cent want an Iranian-style theocracy.

Indeed, it is extraordinary how many Iraqis developed a belief in democracy through the Saddam years. The apparently genuine democratic philos- ophy of Ayatollah Ali Sistani - who has consistently lobbied for a representative and elected government - is one of the great unexpected bonuses of the post-war period. Can it be that Iraq's Thomas Jefferson is an ayatollah?

But at least the shrugging Tories who dismiss Iraqi democracy as a joke are being honest. They freely admit they aren't too bothered about the Iraqi people. They put the British state interest (or their narrow interpretation of it) first, second and third. What's the excuse of the progressives, who purport to care about people irrespective of their nationality or race?

One friend of mine who campaigns for a Palestinian state and votes Green recently confessed: "I hope Iraq remains in chaos. It's more important that Bush loses the election and Blair is ditched than that Iraq goes right." Much of the left has simply written off Iraqi democracy in this way, seeing it as a proxy for other political fights. Yet inside Iraq, it is trade unions - usually seen as allies of the left - who are emerging as bulwarks of a peaceful, stable Iraq, just as they did in post- war Europe.

Here is a small illustration: two months ago Moqtada Sadr, the de facto leader of the Shia uprising, was leading his Army of Mehdi towards Nasiriyah . They stumbled across an aluminium plant and ordered the staff to evacuate, but the workers would not leave. Their trade union, the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq, issued a statement saying their workers "refuse to evacuate their workplaces and turn them into battlefields".

The union rejected "the two poles of terrorism in Iraq" - the armed militias and the occupying forces - and insisted on a transition to a democratic Iraq. Here we have ordinary Iraqis refusing to allow yet another war to disrupt their lives, and they are greeted with total silence from progressive Brits.

Why aren't British trade unions doing far more to back their Iraqi comrades, who have been gassed and butchered for decades but can now organise freely? Where is the solidarity in Britain for terrified Iraqis trying at last to build a democracy? For most British people, marching to stop the war - the war that removed Saddam - has been the limit of their contribution to the Iraqi cause. Where are they now? Why are so few British people even now pressuring their government to act in line with Iraqi opinion?

It might seem tiresome to bring up the Iraqi opinion polls yet again, but we have no better way to find out about Iraqi feelings. The Iraqi people have been remarkably consistent in explaining what they want. Ever since the fall of Saddam, most Iraqis have told pollsters they wanted the invasion to happen, and they wanted it to be followed by a brief occupation lasting between six months and a year. This provided plenty of time for a democratic, representative Iraqi government to be elected; a similar timetable was followed in Eastern Europe after Communism. That year is up. Now they want us out.

The nonchalance with which so many people even today dismiss Iraqi opinion - when it offers us the best solution to the mess we're in - is so odd it should be dubbed Gulf War Syndrome Mark II. The symptoms are easy to diagnose: you blithely assume you know what the majority of Iraqis think, and block your ears whenever somebody offers some evidence of what they really believe. The anti-war movement suffered from it first, ignoring all the evidence that most Iraqis desperately wanted the war to proceed. Now the carry-on-with-the-occupation-despite-the-opposition-of-most-Iraqis crowd are infected.

Please listen to what Iraqis are actually saying at last. In two weeks there will be a largely cosmetic handover of power to an unelected government; there is a danger that we will treat this puppet body as a genuinely representative body and listen even less to the polls.

The message from real Iraqis is nuanced. They do not regret supporting the invasion - just 3 per cent want Saddam back. But the occupation has gone on too long and been too vicious. Ninety two per cent of Iraqis now see the US troops as occupiers rather than liberators.

After the torture in Abu Graib prison and the appalling decision to fire at holy shrines in Najaf, we will never get Iraqi opinion back behind the occupation. The Iraqis who want the troops to stay until a legitimate Iraqi government is elected still outnumber the Iraqis who want the troops out immediately - just, but both sides want the transition within months.

If you support the Iraqi people, don't just wring your hands. Give money to the trade unions at www.iraqitradeunions.org. Pressure our government to bring forward the Iraqi elections to August at the absolute latest - and then to follow the wishes of Iraq's new democratic government. This requires scrapping the too-slow UN hand-over plan. Even more, true democracy would demand that the US give up the neocon plans for permanent military bases in Iraq and the International Monetary Fund's plans for a privatised, hollowed-out Iraqi economy that would make meaningful self-rule impossible.

As my Iraqi correspondent writes: "We need to keep our eye on the prize: democracy for a people beaten up by Baathism for 30 years."

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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