Wayne M. O'Leary

Democracy, Mesopotamian-Style

And now, in lieu of the missing WMD and the nonexistent al-Qaeda connection, the umpteenth reason why we invaded Iraq: to establish democracy.

Judging by the media coverage of the Jan. 30 election, the happy Iraqi is back, ink-stained index finger waving in defiance of the enemies of democratic pluralism. All hail George W. Bush and the neocons, triumphant at last.

Maybe it was all worth it -- nearly 13,000 dead or wounded American troops, an estimated 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, $250 billion in US military spending (more than in World War I), a wrecked country in the Middle East and the condemnation of the civilized world. A small price to pay for spreading the American way of life.

The national news media, embedded once more and as keen as the administration to put a positive spin on the latest chapter in the Iraq adventure, covered the story the same sloppy, superficial way they covered our own elections in 2000 and 2004.

Twenty-four hours after the polls closed, the American public was being told that 80% of Iraqis had enthusiastically participated. Within days, that was reduced first to 70%, then 60%, then 50%, and finally to an admission that, pending the actual count, no one really knew.

The feared wave of insurgent attacks on election day was downplayed; only nine had taken place, we were initially told. A week later, the confirmed total had climbed to 260, with over 40 deaths resulting. Another small price to pay.

Democracy became the consensus story line and the retroactive justification for the invasion. The attitude of war enthusiasts on the home front was neatly summarized in a revealing offhand remark by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas to the effect that the world wanted American civic institutions and we were obligated to provide them.

The Bush administration, originally opposed to elections in Iraq, has had an interesting way of carrying out that charge. Its current man in Baghdad, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, is a former Ba'athist enforcer and CIA operative with a reputation for being "Saddam lite." Jon Lee Anderson, who profiled the controversial strongman for The New Yorker, reported compelling evidence implicating him personally in the summary execution, by handgun, of several insurgent prisoners -- hardly an advertisement for superior democratic values.

The organization that won the recent election by a landslide and will presumably pick the permanent successor to Allawi, the Shi'ite-backed United Iraqi Alliance, is a coalition of several quasireligious parties led by a cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani is a moderate, at least as compared to his radical young rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, who rebelled against the occupation last year.

The ayatollah is said to favor a relatively secular form of Islamic state, but he has ties to the reactionary mullahs of Iran and could prove an obstacle to the tidy American vision of a future Iraq. Conservative religious dress, discouraged under Saddam, is already proliferating in the "liberated" Shi'ite south, an ominous portent of things to come.

The Bush administration may eventually wind up hoist with its own petard. Although the ultimate fate of Iraq under the new democratic dispensation remains uncertain, one thing is obvious: The Shi'ite Muslim majority (60% of the population) will rule. The coalition of Shi'ite clerical parties endorsed by Sistani took half the vote, double its nearest competition and closely in line with the sect's numerical strength.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has perceptively predicted the likely political outcome for the country as a "soft Shi'ite theocracy" with "kinder, gentler mullahs," not quite what the neocons had in mind. It's ironic that this result will have been brought about by George W. Bush, himself a religious fundamentalist of sorts heading a quasitheocratic party.

There will certainly be a diminished role for westernized, exile-community secularists like Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi, beloved by Washington's policymakers. Likewise the minority Sunni Muslims, who dominated Iraq for centuries, first under the auspices of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, then under the British Mandate from 1919 to 1932, and finally under the independent regime that ended with Saddam Hussein. The marginalization of the secularists could push Iraq in the direction of Iran. More important, the evident alienation of the Sunnis -- only 15% appear to have voted -- means a possible full-blown civil war, once American troops depart.

In the euphoria of the election, which only chose delegates to a constitutional convention, western observers thought they saw the makings of true Jeffersonian democracy. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The very selective segment of the Iraqi electorate highlighted by the American media (individuals who spoke English, wore western garb, had been educated overseas, worked as professionals or business people, and lived mostly in cosmopolitan Baghdad) was hardly a cross section of Iraq's population.

The actual tabulated returns suggested that, however pleased to be voting, most hinterland Iraqis took a distinctly tribal approach to democracy; they voted in lockstep for candidates their religious or ethnic leaders selected and expressed a group, not an individual, preference. Shi'ites voted the Shi'ite slate, Kurds the Kurdish slate, Sunnis (those who voted) the Sunni slate.

As a practical matter, the election was an exercise in mass bloc voting. For the doctrinaire Shi'ites, in particular, the vote was a chance to ensure their control of the Iraq state when the US leaves; it was also an opportunity for sweet revenge after decades of second-class citizenship under Sunni rule.

For their part, the Sunnis know their future in the new Iraq is limited by sheer numbers; thus, their partial election boycott and their continuing support of the insurgency. The third major component of the electorate, the independence-minded Kurds, participated; but being another cultural minority (like the Sunni Arabs, they comprise no more than 20% of the country), their reaction to a Shi'ite-dominated government is problematic.

In short, what the Bush administration is pleased to call democracy may have opened a Pandora's box leading to an oppressive theocracy or a tearing asunder of the artificial construct known as modem Iraq. Either result would produce more regional instability than Saddam's Ba'athist regime ever did. Of course, it's also possible everything may work out in the end, but the smart money would be against it.

Welcome to the law of unintended consequences, Mr. President.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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