"Democracy" in Iraq: Sheiks and Swindlers
April 23, 2003

Maria Tomchick

Now that Iraq has been thoroughly looted, and its history pillaged and burned, the Pentagon has commenced the task of replacing the old regime with a new one. Unfortunately, the new regime could end up looking very much like the old one.

The Bush administration's first initiative--to re-appoint mid-level members of the Baath Party to act as the mayors and civil servants of Iraq's cities, has so far failed, most notably in Basra.

Two weeks ago, as the British finally "secured" Basra, they appointed a local sheik to run the city. At first they refused to release his name, to the chagrin of the British press who dubbed him "the secret sheik." Residents of Basra, however, were not mollified and demanded to know his name, which the British eventually divulged: Sheik Muzahim Mustafa Kanan Tameemi.

Tameemi, it turns out, was more than just a local sheik. He was a brigadier general in Saddam's military and a former Baath Party member. Demonstrations erupted immediately. How could the British put a former Baathist in charge? They pointed out that it was an insult to them as an educated people to have a tribal sheik ruling over them. They wanted to choose their own mayor.

A large, hostile group gathered outside Tameemi's home and threw stones at his family, while another group marched through the poor section of the city, demanding an Islamic government. The British backpedaled and replaced Tameemi with a wealthy local businessman, a man named Ghalib Kubba. The protests, however, have continued--after all, how could a businessman grow so wealthy under Saddam Hussein without having ties to the Baath Party or Saddam himself?

Then came the Najaf fiasco. A exiled Iraqi named Abdul Majid al-Khoei had been traveling with US troops, working as a translator and liaison to local people in southern Iraq. Al-Khoei was the son of a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric who died under house arrest in Najaf in 1992. Having lived in Britain for twelve years, al-Khoei became a friend of Tony Blair and Jack Straw. Al-Khoei was earmarked as an Iraqi exile leader who would play a key role in forming the new government in Iraq.

Al-Khoei shucked his military escort and went to Najaf to help settle a dispute between the former Baath Party leader of the local mosque, Haider al-Kadar, and some armed members of the al-Sadr family (Mohammed Braga al-Sadr was a prominent Shiite cleric murdered by Saddam Hussein during the Shiite uprising after the Persian Gulf War in 1991). Al-Khoei met with al-Kadar first, then suggested that they go and make peace with the al-Sadr supporters. It's unclear how the fighting started, but both men, al-Kadar and al-Khoei were eventually hacked to death with swords and knives. Many onlookers said that the crowd was so angry at the attempt to reinstall the hated al-Kadar in the holy shrine that they cut him into little pieces. Al-Khoei, it appears, was killed either because he was viewed as an American puppet attempting to supplant the local successor to al-Sadr, or because he was supporting a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Certainly, anti-Baathist feeling runs high among a populace that has lost many of its spiritual leaders to Saddam's purges. Iraqi Shiites were never allowed to openly worship or celebrate their religious holidays. The past two weeks in Iraq have been remarkable--among Sunni as well as Shiite people--for the blossoming of public religious practice and attendance at mosques. And at most mosques, religious leaders are telling their people the same things: they must choose their own leaders, they must make the Americans leave as soon as possible, and they must have an Islamic state.

It's that last injunction that has the Bush administration worried. Iraqi Shiites have a religious connection to the largely Shiite population of Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor. There are political connections to Iran's fundamentalist government, too. One of the largest Shiite groups is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has ties to Iran's military, and who agitates for a fundamentalist Islamic state. Just this past week, 30 armed men from SCIRI took over the town hall building in Kut and gradually, firmly, and persistently took over the running of the city from the US marines stationed there. The marine commander even considered assassinating the SCIRI's self-appointed mayor, but refrained when he saw that everyone in the city was kowtowing and deferring to the man. Killing him would have provoked a riot.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, April 15, the US military held the first of a series of town meetings at an airbase near Ur to select community representatives. The operative term here is "select," with the emphasis on who's doing the choosing: United States envoys. Notably, most of the prominent Shiite clerics throughout southern Iraq boycotted the meeting. Only one Shiite cleric attended, a man named Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din. The US envoys likes al-Din because he's the only Shiite religious leader they could find who'll argue for a secular state.

At the same time, in nearby Nasiriyah, at least 5,000 Iraqis protested in the streets on Tuesday, carrying signs that read, "No one represents us in the conference." Certainly, they had a point: the conference was heavily dominated by US-funded Iraqi exiles, while the rest of the delegates were carefully hand-picked and pre-screened by US envoys. On Wednesday, the protests in Nasiriyah had grown to 20,000 people, and the unrest had spread to Baghdad, where several hundred people had gathered outside the heavily garrisoned Palestine Hotel, chanting, "Down, down USA--don't stay, go away!"

By Friday, the first day that most Iraqis had been able to attend a full prayer service since Saddam Hussein had come to power, the mosques all over the country were packed. The mullahs mixed religion and politics, lecturing against the US occupiers and for a multi-ethnic, Islamic state. When morning prayers ended, people poured out into the streets of Baghdad. The US press reported thousands of demonstrators, while the wire services said there were tens of thousands of people in the streets. Al Jazeera and some reporters on the scene put the number in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 people. The demonstrators carried banners that read: "No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State," while organizers called for cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites in rejecting US efforts to impose Iraqi exiles as leaders of a new Iraq.

Certainly not every Iraqi wants an Islamic state, but the US has made no overtures to the members of Iraq's educated classes. In fact, the US military seems to be interested in only those Iraqi academics, scientists, and businessmen who might know something about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program. Geologists and technicians to help jump-start oil production are also in high demand, but the US military is not recruiting anyone to form a constitutional assembly, set up local caucuses, register political parties, or draw up voter lists.

Instead, the Pentagon has put its backing behind one man. On the same day as the massive Baghdad protest, US troops chauffeured Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi into the capital city, where he set up his headquarters in a social club formerly frequented by Saddam's sons. Chalabi is obviously the Pentagon's choice for the next President of Iraq, although both the CIA and the State Department loathe the man. Chalabi is a criminal. Convicted in absentia for bank fraud in Jordan, he would have to serve 22 years in prison if he were ever extradited to Jordan. In addition, Swiss authorities have prosecuted two of his brothers on similar charges. Chalabi is also widely detested by other Iraqi exiles, has no constituency inside or outside of Iraq, and shows no ability to unite other Iraqi leaders, much less the multi-ethnic Iraqi people.

In addition, the CIA and the State Department may fear what seems obvious to everyone else: that Chalabi will become the type of President-for-life that the US has helped to install in other Third World nations. He's a man who's very Saddam-like, and his legacy will be much the same: rigged elections, numerous human rights abuses, and a plundered public treasury.

Ominously, Chalabi is already short-circuiting the efforts of US envoys with their stage-managed town meetings. He has announced that he will invite the leaders of four other groups to meet with him in Baghdad to form a five-member Iraqi Leadership Council. The other four groups are SCIRI, Iraqi National Accord (prominent Iraqi exiles, just like Chalabi's group), and the two main Kurdish groups, the PUK and the DK. No local Iraqi leaders need apply.

Chalabi has also turned his attention to hiring his own armed militia members, presumably to be paid with his ill-gotten wealth (although there is undoubtedly a few million dollars in Pentagon funds rattling around in his coffers, too).

Meanwhile, other thieves are riding on the coattails of US troops. Much of the recent violence in the northern city of Mosul can be explained by the US installing Mishaan al-Juburi as the new mayor of Mosul. When al-Juburi attempted to give a public speech exhorting Mosul residents to support US troops, the crowd called him a liar and pelted him with stones, whereupon US troops opened fired on the crowd, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 60. Members of the al-Juburi tribe have told Al Jazeera TV that Mishaan is a gangster and has no support among the residents of either Mosul or the surrounding area.

In the chaos and power vacuum that follows war and the downfall of a regime, armed gangs, warlords, and mafioso soon take over. This was true in a number of former Soviet republics, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan. In Iraq, however, the US military is actively supporting the ascendancy of warlords and mafioso, and favoring one strongman--Ahmad Chalabi--to lead them all.


Some of the sources for this article:

"Sheik's Appointment by British Triggers Protests and Accusations," Susan Glasser, Washington Post, 4/11/03, A29, http://www.washingtonpost.com

"A Dust-Up in Basra's Leadership Vacuum," Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times, 4/18/03, http://www.latimes.com

"The Shia of Najaf seethe ominously, fearing the yoke of US occupation," Phil Reeves, The Independent, http://news.independent.co.uk

"Murdered in a mosque: the cleric who went home to act as a peacemaker," Cahal Milmo, The Independent, 4/11/03

"Shiite Power Struggle Threatens Stability," Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, 4/17/03, A10

"Free to Protest, Iraqis Complain About the US," Ian Fisher, New York Times, 4/16/03, http://www.nytimes.com

"First glimpse of Iraq's new power brokers," Peter Grier and Ben Arnoldy, Christian Science Monitor, 4/16/03, http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0416/p01s04-woiq.htm

"5,000 march to have say on future of Iraq," Marcella Bombardieri, Boston Globe, 4/16/03, http://www.boston.com

"Baghdad Residents Protest US Troops," Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press, 4/18/03

"Dilip Hiro: Can Iraq be held together now Saddam is gone?" The Independent, 4/11/03

"Self-proclaimed rulers emerge in Iraq," Al Jazeera, english.aljazeera.net; "US admits Mosul killings," BBC online, 4/16/03, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2951789.stm

"Mosul residents tiring of US presence," Odai Sirri, Al Jazeera, 4/17/03