Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Democracy Lives on Main Street

The United States needs to look beyond existing political parties to establish genuine pluralism in Iraq.
By Hiwa Osman

The thousands of Iraqis who joined the recent wave of demonstrations that swept the country in support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for general elections sent a strong message to Iraqi and American politicians. Their message is simple but emphatic, "Count us in!"

The Iraqi people feel marginalised. "We were passive observers in the past," said one Iraqi journalist, a Shia from Baghdad. "We still are passive observers."

The former Iraqi regime failed largely because it separated the people from the decision-making process. As evidence of that, consider the fact that no-one living in Iraq today has ever voted for a head of state.

Following liberation, many Iraqis, especially the oppressed Shia and Kurdish populations, felt that at long last the country was coming back to them – that it was no longer Saddam Hussein's Iraq but theirs.

They were excited that a new chapter had opened and a new Iraq was in the making - an Iraq that wouldn't marginalise them.

But ominously, a series of meetings was then held behind closed doors, and the people had only a distant vision of these meetings – one given them only by Arab satellite television.

What Iraqis saw chilled them: US and selected Iraqi participants parading in and out of the meetings, occasionally issuing only the most general and non-committal statements to the media.

The rebuilding of the new Iraqi state still has not taken the shape of a real national project. So far, political parties recognised by the US have been scrambling to grab as large a slice of the pie as possible.

These political parties have no experience in nation-building.

Worse, some of them have a stronger commitment to Iraq's neighbours - their old allies in the pre-war world of exile politics - than they have to building a healthy state.

These parties have evolved from opposition politics. Not one of them appears to have a programme, a platform, a vision or even an idea of how to remake the country properly.

The Kurdish leadership in the north wants federalism, but the Kurdish street is much more hard line.

The Kurdish leaders are leftovers of the struggle against Baghdad and the fight for autonomy.

But younger Kurds are much more self-confident. They don’t see federalism as a victory – rather a concession.

Iraqi Shia, who remember the failure of both the mullah-led regime next door in Iran and of Arab nationalism, seek a moderate, secular state in which they will have majority representation.

But the Iraqi Shia are not represented.

Under Baathist rule, political activity inside the country meant a one-way trip to Saddam's prisons. As a result, parties developed clandestinely, if at all.

Today's Shia leadership of mullahs and politicians spent years under Iran's sponsorship, and those leaders have another agenda than the one desired by the Shia street.

The Shia leaders want an Iranian-style theocracy.

Meanwhile, the Islamist contingent and their faux-liberal business partners on the Iraqi Governing Council recently managed to pass a bill that repealed Iraq’s progressive civil status law.

This sent thousands of angry women running for the streets in protest.

Although chief US administrator Paul Bremer has yet to sign the bill, the Islamists' effort to ramrod the repressive legislation through clearly shows their ultimate aim of applying Sharia or Islamic law across the country.

Whether Shia or Sunni, Arab or Kurd, the truly liberal and democratic majority in Iraq has yet to find its voice.

Worse, the US has not even considered opening its ears for any genuine voice of the Iraqi people. The Americans are dealing with a hand-picked leadership in a country with no transparency and no accountability.

More significantly, in Iraq, the opposition leadership bears little resemblance to the reality in the street.

The situation has been worsened by the nearly complete lack of effective local media to inform the people about activities in the corridors of power.

As a result, what little information reaches the street does so only through half-truths, rumours and innuendo.

The street is isolated from the Iraqi leadership and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Which is why people are calling for a direct election, without giving much thought to the various obstacles and difficulties of holding a truly fair one.

Under the current set-up, an election might prove disastrous for the US and for those Iraqis who want to see a liberal, democratic, pluralistic and federal country.

Mullahs and warlords with ties to neighbours who do not want to see a successful Iraq will tell - and are telling - the Iraqi people that America is the cause of their continuing misery.

Those are the very same mullahs and warlords who will try to take the winning seats in any forthcoming elections.

If the US really does wish to rebuild Iraq as a healthy model for political change in the Middle East, then it will have to reach beyond the current leaders to Iraq's silent but otherwise liberal, secular and democratic-minded majority.

In a word, the US needs to look to Main Street if it wants real political success in Iraq.

Hiwa Osman is an editor and journalism trainer with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in Baghdad.

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