I know this is a topic that doesn’t grab people’s attention like it used to, but since our invasion of Iraq was the main issue that drew me into blogging nine years ago, I’d like to lend a little perspective to this week’s news about an apparent increase in sectarian conflict there.
The first thing that was clear to me (and others) as I tried to make sense of the impending war in early 2003 was that the U.S. had no practical plan to deliver genuine freedom to the Iraqi people. The eventual post-Saddam government would hopefully be less brutally authoritarian, but perhaps not by much. The key twist, though — evident before the year was over — was that Americans would not decide who led that new government.
Reading between the lines of articles like Anthony Shadid’s profile of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, I came to realize that Iraq’s Shiite power structure had a game plan for using U.S. promises of democracy to deliver a sectarian-based regime:
Sistani’s spokesmen have said he draws lessons for today from the six-month revolt in 1920 against the British occupation. Once it was put down, the Shiite clergy remained in opposition, rejecting participation in elections that followed and discouraging followers from entering the government and its institutions, which soon were dominated by minority Sunnis.
That year “is like a complex in the hearts and minds of the Shiites,” said Mohieddin Khatib, the secretary of the Governing Council. “It is a very deep regret, and he is saying you will not hear something like this from me.”
And so I wasn’t surprised as Iraq’s Shiite majority generally followed the grand ayatollah’s lead in cooperating with rather than confronting the occupation… and as Sistani pressured the U.S. into unwanted elections as soon as possible, then created and endorsed an essentially all-Shiite slate that swept to victory in early 2005.
One of the things I wrote about back then was this billboard (see picture on left) that the government-to-be put up after its win. Showing an empty stretch of land with tank tracks, the caption supposedly read, “They are leaving… and we are staying.” (“They,” of course, were the people with the tanks, the U.S. occupiers.)
And now, seven years later, with the American military finally gone, the same ruling alliance (which is still in power, despite some internal shifts) is clamping down to cement its rule? You don’t say. But please don’t try to tell me it’s any kind of sudden development.