Iraq's Odious Debts

Iraqi elections: ‘To be free and fair’

Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver
Institute for Policy Studies
December 14, 2005

President Bush had one thing right when he said in March 2005: “All [foreign] military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the elections for those elections to be free and fair.” He was talking about Syrian troops in Lebanon; the same claim should be made about U.S. troops in Iraq. Elections are often important indices and instruments of democracy, but elections held under conditions of military occupation are not legitimate.

Whatever combination of political forces claims to “win” the December 15 election, the result will likely increase the level of sectarianism in Iraq.

The election results are irrelevant to the U.S. obligation to withdraw its troops and end the occupation – including all mercenary and “coalition” forces, evacuating all U.S. bases in Iraq, giving up all claims to control of Iraqi oil, and ending the occupation-imposed privatization and other laws.

Official Arab voices, including Arab state governments long dependent on and allied with the U.S. as well as most factions of the interim Iraqi government, through the recent Cairo declaration are beginning to change the regional dynamic by calling for a timetable to end the U.S. and “coalition” occupation.


The illegitimacy of elections conducted under military occupation is not a new issue. In our assessment of one year ago, looking ahead to the January 2005 Iraqi election we noted, “As currently planned, the . elections in Iraq are designed to provide a veneer of credibility and legitimacy to the continuation of U.S. control of Iraq, through election of a U.S.-friendly government that will welcome the U.S. military bases in Iraq, and through the drafting of a U.S.-oriented constitution…” That scenario remains largely unchanged today, despite the broader range of Iraqi political forces participating in and mobilizing for the election, especially significant Sunni participation.

We also noted one year ago that “powerful U.S. political operations are also underway in Iraq aimed at influencing the outcome of the elections. Whatever money may be entering Iraq from Iran or other regional centers, it is almost certain that (despite official Washington denials) U.S. financial and political influence-buying is far more extensive. Both the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have major campaigns underway to help ‘train’ and provide ‘capacity building’ to various Iraqi parties – ostensibly open to all parties, recruiting favors those deemed open to maintaining close U.S. ties, and those viewed as likely to move Iraq’s economy towards privatization and globalization. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided about $80 million to these and other organizations, many of them working under the auspices of the Cold War-era National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to “assist” Iraqi parties in the run-up to the elections. The result will almost certainly be the election of many parties, slates and candidates at least open to, if not strongly committed, to a U.S.-centered political, military and economic trajectory.”

Seymour Hersh confirmed these concerns of U.S. intervention in the January elections in a July 2005 article in the New Yorker. This article broke the story that President Bush authorized covert plans last year to support the election campaigns of Iraqis with close ties to the White House, specifically Ayad Allawi, who had been installed by the United States as Iraq’s interim prime minister in 2004 and who previously worked closely with CIA. The same dynamic exists today, with NDI, IRI and NED providing election “assistance” and Allawi remaining the U.S.’ preferred candidate.

The recent spike in U.S. and British media coverage of the campaign of Allawi may reflect a deeper U.S. effort to insure, by whatever means, his electoral victory. The western media blitz is highlighting the ostensible secularism and “professionalism” of Allawi’s own campaign, featuring U.S.-style political ads, television spots, etc., and noting the current popularity in Iraqi polls of calls for a “strong leader.” That may reflect an effort to recast some of Allawi’s potential campaign weaknesses, including accusations that he shot six bound prisoners in the courtyard of a U.S.-run prison during the first months of the occupation as well as his support for reconstituting the Ba’athist leadership of the Iraqi military, as political strengths. In the days before the election Allawi was polling at about 20% – meaning he could be the kingmaker negotiating between Shia’a and Kurdish-dominated parties which may not reach the needed 2/3 majority.

Whoever wins the election, the campaign process is already escalating the sectarian divides within Iraq. The country’s social fabric remains brutally shredded by a dozen years of crippling economic sanctions, continued bombings, invasion and military occupation. It’s understandable how that can set the stage for a retreat from traditional secular national identity to smaller associations of religion, ethnicity, tribe, clan and family.

The emergence of a new set of political parties based largely on ethnic and/or religious identity continues to fortify the fragmentation of Iraqi national identity. Washington’s direct embrace of Kurdish and Shi’a-based parties (not coincidentally based in Iraq’s oil-rich zones) combined with its lame efforts to win the appearance of legitimacy and to undercut the resistance by convincing Sunni politicians to join the electoral process, continue this process of devolution of Iraqi national identity and national power to smaller religious and ethnic sub-groups. From the beginning of the occupation, U.S. efforts were consistently focused on dividing Iraq and Iraqis by ethnic and religious affiliations designed to undercut the once-primary Iraqi national identity.

While the elections move forward in Iraq, political opposition to the occupation of Iraq and demands to bring the troops home are on the rise in the U.S., most visibly in the recent shake-ups in congress. Pro-war and military cheerleader Rep. John Murtha’s unexpected call to bring home the troops within six months remains, despite his unacceptable calls for a continued “over the horizon” deployment of U.S. troops off the Iraqi coast and in Kuwait, the bellwether of shifting congressional alliances. Pressuring anti-war forces in Congress to hold the line, and increasing pressure on still-reluctant Democrats to at least follow the rising public demand to end the war, remain key tasks of anti-war activists.

U.S. and global anti-war campaigners should be prepared for significant U.S. troop withdrawals immediately following the election – probably 20,000 or so in January 2006, and another 25,000 to 30,000 later in the spring, inevitably accompanied by an enormous media fanfare. This will NOT constitute an end to occupation. Ending occupation means bringing home ALL the troops, dismantling the 14 “permanent” U.S. military bases now in various stages of construction throughout Iraq, removing all mercenaries (politely identified as “military contractors”), explicitly renouncing all claims to control of Iraqi oil, and reversing all laws (especially those privatizing the Iraqi economy and turning over Iraq’s national oil wealth to private corporate interests) imposed by the occupation authorities. Only after occupation can we begin the process of making good on outstanding U.S. obligations to the people of Iraq – compensation for the years of sanctions, reparations for the devastation of war, cancellation of odious debt, support for (but not control of) international peacekeeping and reconstruction assistance, and real rebuilding assistance to Iraqis as they rebuild their own country.

Bush’s false claims of “bringing democracy to Iraq” cannot be the prerequisite for ending the occupation and bringing home all the U.S. troops. The invasion and occupation were and remain illegal, and it is our obligation to fight to end it now.


Phyllis Bennis’ new book is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power, just published by Interlink.
It is available from IPS or from

The Institute for Policy Studies
Ideas into Action for Peace, Justice and the Environment

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