Michael Meacher: America is usurping the democratic will in Iraq

To forestall a clerical-driven religious regime, Washington has a plan to arm small militias

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It's two months now since the elections in Iraq, and still no government is formed. The struggle over the Sunni problem, the Kurdish claim for the massive Kirkuk oilfields, and the manoeuvring between religious groups and contending personalities continues unabated. But there is a deeper problem still.

It's two months now since the elections in Iraq, and still no government is formed. The struggle over the Sunni problem, the Kurdish claim for the massive Kirkuk oilfields, and the manoeuvring between religious groups and contending personalities continues unabated. But there is a deeper problem still.

There are two scenarios for Iraq. One, the American one, aims for a pro-Western government, an uninterrupted supply of Middle East oil to US markets, and a semi-permanent military base in the area to ensure that the first two objectives are secured. The other is more complex, and only now slowly beginning to emerge.

When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, they expected there would be a quick handover to carefully selected allies in a secular government that would be the opposite of Iran's theocracy, and perhaps even a counterfoil to Iran's regional aspirations. It is one of the greatest ironies of the US intervention that the Iraqi people instead used their first voting opportunity to elect a government with a strong religious base, and indeed with close links to the Islamic republic on their border. The US, having destroyed the sole major secular government in the region, is now at risk of replacing it with a theocratic regime.

Thousands of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, the largest party which will name the prime minister, spent long years of exile in Iran. Most of the militia in its largest faction were trained in Shia parts of Iran. Even Jalal Talabani, co-leader of the Kurdish parties that won a quarter of the vote, despite his links with the Americans over Kurdish regional autonomy, is very close to Tehran. The Kurdish enclave for decades drew vital economic and political protection from its Iranian neighbour.

The scene is now set for a prolonged power struggle between the US and the Shia majority. Having been deprived for more than 500 years of the opportunity to govern Iraq, the Shias, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are clearly now determined to exert their influence.

In the face of this risk of a clerical-backed alliance of Shia Islamists in collaboration with Iran, the US has not been idle. Time magazine (27 September 2004) reported before the elections on a covert CIA operation to aid candidates favoured by Washington. It reported US officials as saying that the idea was to help such candidates, but "not necessarily" to go so far as to rig the elections. In the event, the United Iraqi Alliance of mainly Shia Islamist parties won only 48 per cent of the total vote, well below their share of the population. Interestingly, Reuters (13 February) reported a few hours before the election results were officially announced that "the United Iraqi Alliance said today it had been told by Iraq's Electoral Commission that it had won around 60 per cent of the vote in the country's election". This was later confirmed by the former US chief Unscom weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, who announced to a packed meeting in Washington state on 19 February that the United Iraqi Alliance actually gained 56 per cent of the vote, and that "an official involved in the manipulation was the source".

The significance of this voting manoeuvre is revealed in a Washington Post report (14 February): "A senior State Department official said yesterday that the 48 per cent vote won by the Shia slate deprives it of an outright majority. 'If it had been higher, the slate would be seen with a lot more trepidation'."

A second US device to thwart a Shia ascendancy was adopted by the former US proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, a year ago. His Transitional Administrative Law in effect gave the Kurds a veto over the new constitution. However, both Shias and Sunnis are now committed to getting the new parliament to cancel it. The TAL itself states that it can only be amended by a three-quarters vote in parliament, which the Kurds, with more than a quarter of the seats, would be expected to block. The Shia Alliance nevertheless argues that the new parliament has greater authority than the law because the latter was passed under pressure of military conquest.

Yet the US has a third ploy ready. There is already evidence of a strong movement in southern Iraq to establish autonomous Shia provinces as a precursor to introducing clerical rule in the whole country.

To forestall a clerical-driven religious regime, Washington has a plan in reserve, according to Asia Times (15 February), to arm small militias backed by US troops. The report states that "in a highly clandestine operation, the US has procured Pakistan-manufactured weapons, and consignments have been loaded in bulk on to US military cargo aircraft at Chaklala airbase in the past few weeks". The same report says that these US supported militias would comprise former members of the Baath party, which has already split into three factions, and would receive assistance from the interim prime minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord.

Despite the show of democratic elections, a great deal of manoeuvring will continue before the US-Shia power struggle is finally played out.

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