Friday, February 04, 2005

News Roundup: Between Iraq and a Hard Place

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

As I'm a Democrat and, hence, obviously must hate America, I'll open by talking about a story that reflects poorly on our nation, mock Bush's SotU, quickly gloss over the Iraqi elections, and close on a sour note. Just doing my part as a card-carrying member of the VLWC (Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, for those of you out of the loop).

But first, in other news...

By now, everyone must have heard about the recent death of comedian extrodinaire Johnny Carson. Whenever I think of him now, I can't help but think of that Elton John song, "Candle in the Wind."

I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did

I really wish I'd gotten to meet him, or at least see him when he was on the "Tonight Show." Unfortunately, I really was just a kid.

A few days before he died, the newspapers carried a story about how Carson thought of at least 5 new gags or jokes every day. He'd send them to David Letterman, whom he regarded as more of his comedic heir than that pompous windbag Jay Leno. Occasionally, Letterman would use them in his monologue.

According to, a "tradition evolved over the years so that anytime Carson would say a phrase in his monologue such as 'It was so (hot/cold/dark/etc.)...' someone in the audience would invariably call out 'How ---- was it?' which would set up Carson's rejoinder 'It was so ----, that ....' and complete the joke. According to a later biography of Carson, however, it was actually against the rules for someone in the audience to interrupt Carson this way, and anyone who called out 'How ---- was it?' was invariably removed from the studio."

So, Carson's the one who started that!

Anyway, moving on...

On the note of death and dying, Pope John Paul II has been hospitalized for the flu. For a man as old and frail as he is (he has Parkinson disease, like Arafat did) pneumonia could be the final straw for his immune system. Vatican officials play down the severity of the illness, but then again, that's to be expected from any bureaucracy. Although I am not a Catholic, I have immense respect for the man. I consider John Paul II to be one of the truly great leaders of the past century. Remember, it was John Paul II and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa who, more than anyone else, encouraged the people of Poland to resist the Soviets. When it became apparent that the Soviet leadership was no longer willing to use force to keep the nations of Eastern Europe in its despotic grip, the whole house of cards that was the Warsaw Pact quickly fell apart. Forget Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev; it was two Poles who brought down the "Evil Empire."

John Paul II also did a lot to help mend relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, Judaism, and science. (He apologized for the Catholic Church's intolerance toward Galileo, an apology about 400 years overdue) But on social values issues (like allowing women to be clergy; making celibacy optional; and allowing the use of condoms and other forms of birth control to cut down on the number of abortions worldwide and, also AIDS cases in Africa) the Pope was inflexible. A mixed legacy, indeed, though overall, one any pontiff could be proud of. I will post further on the subject in the event that he doesn't make it. I encourage readers, regardless of their religious affiliation, to pray for his speedy recovery.

Dean for DNC?

In case you haven't heard, the current chair of the Democratic National committee, the insufferably pompous windbag Terry McAuliffe is stepping down. The almost certain replacement is... get this... Mr. Scream himself! That's right, perhaps encouraged by the recent reemergence of Newt Gingrich from the political looney bin, "Howeird" Dean has escaped his comfortable white padded room at the funny farm to run the DNC. Really, they shouldn't even let this man near a mike!

I know, I've heard the argument that Howard Dean proved himself to be an adept fundraiser in the primaries and that the most important job of a National committee chairman is to raise money for the party. But a large part of being the chairman of a political party that is out of power is to go on TV and other media sources and advocate the positions of the party. When your party is out of power, and it's not an election year, and your leaders in Congress (in this case Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) are not exactly media-ready, the party chair often fills the need of "voice of the party." Kinda hard to do when you're a national laughingstock. (Reference my post-Iowa post the January before last:

Hopefully the committee members will see reason and pass over Dean when they convene this month. If not, it's going to be a long 4 years indeed. On second thought, maybe they should let Dean be DNC chairman. Keep him out of trouble and hopefully out of the 2008 primaries. Please, God!

Not my America!

Now, the first item on the agenda: "Report on story that reflects poorly on our nation." Hmmm... I have just the thing! I think I'll just let this article,, speak for itself:

"Videotapes of riot squads subduing troublesome terror suspects at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, show the guards punching some detainees, tying one to a gurney for questioning and forcing a dozen to strip from the waist down, according to a secret report.... One such clip.... showed 'one or more' team members punching a detainee 'on an area of his body that seemingly would be inconsistent with striking a pressure point,' which is a sanctioned tactic for subduing prisoners.... In other 'questionable' cases, reviewers said a video showed a guard kneeing a detainee in the head, while another showed a team securing a detainee to a gurney for an interrogation.... A separate clip captured a platoon leader taunting a detainee with pepper spray and repeatedly spraying him before letting the reaction team enter the cell, reviewers wrote.

"Investigators also noted about a dozen cases where detainees were stripped from the waist down.... Prisoners were often left naked for days.... Many of the prisoners are Muslim men and under strict interpretations of Islam view contact with other women other than their wives as taboo.... Prisoners released from Guantanamo have accused the extraction teams of abuse and one former U.S. National Guardsman received brain damage after posing undercover as a rowdy detainee and being beaten by teammates.

Way to win over hearts and minds in the Muslim world, guys! All this, after Abu Ghraib. Makes me sick! Not ashamed to be an American mind you. Just ashamed these people are my fellow countrymen.

On Bush's State of the Union, I admit I did not watch most of it. I don't feel like I missed much though. After all, Bush's SotU statements and promises are notoriously unreliable. This from

"Hey, Mr. Prez, is that Axis of Evil any less evil now? Is North Korea any more cooperative? Is Iran any less belligerent? How is that battle against AIDS in Africa going? Did you find all that yellowcake from Niger? How about all those caches of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq? Are we still leaving children behind? Have we nabbed Bin Laden? Can I start planning my trip to Mars now? Is there one major plan or goal expressed by Bush in a State of the Union that has worked? Where are the standards of judgment? Where is the scorecard?"

Between Iraq and a hard place

Now, the recent Iraqi elections. I am too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the great explosion of democracy in 1989. So, to have seen the peoples of Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine, and now Iraq vote in the last few months has been extraordinary. Seeing the footage of thousands of Iraqis walking to the polls, holding up their indelible-ink stained fingers as a sign of defiance to insurgents has been among the most moving sights of my life. We are truly living in historic times.

There was less violence than I had feared. Apparently all the draconian security measures (including a three-day ban on driving and traveling outside your province, jamming all cell phones, not revealing where the polling places were until hours before voting started, and having most of the candidates choose to remain anonymous for fear of being assassinated) worked to prevent the "blood flowing in the streets" that the insurgents had promised.

I'd like to caution against the feeling that any kind of turning point has been reached. We've heard that before. We heard that attacks were sure to decrease after the fall of Baghdad when Bush declared "Mission Accomplished", after Uday and Qusay were killed, after Saddam was captured, after "sovereignty" was transferred in June 2004, after we chased the rebels out of Fallujah. Each time, violence only increased, and the insurgency only got smarter, bolder, more sophisticated, more deadly. This election, while it might seem to be a crushing blow against the insurgency, could do more to undermine a unified democratic Iraq than anything the insurgents could accomplish in their wildest dreams.

The reasons for my pessimism have to do with Iraq's history and demographics, my reading of various blogs (notably Juan Cole's, which is in the blogroll), and the realizations I have come to as a result of my reflections on 20th century history and two college courses I took last semester about Islam and Middle East politics.

The Shiites make up 60% of the country's population, but have long been oppressed by Saddam and other leaders of the Sunni community, which makes up about 20% of Iraq's population. The Sunnis are loathe to give up their traditional power. Because of this, some Sunnis boycotted the election. Many others realized that not participating in the election would be a disaster for the Sunni community, but, as the violence in Iraq is primarily concentrated in the areas with a majority Sunni population, they didn't feel safe voting. Most Sunni groups and politicians called for the elections to be delayed to give time for the security situation to improve. The Bush administration was deadset on having the elections on schedule, because of the Shiites (see below), and because there was no guarantee that the situation would necessarily be any better in a few months. Sunni turnout is estimated to have been in the single digits, meaning there is a real danger that they will feel disenfranchised and left out of the new government--a potent recipe for a protracted civil war, exactly what Al-Zarqawi is trying to achieve.

The worst part about all of this is that it was probably preventable. The whole occupation of Iraq has proved to be a series of increasingly deadly screw-ups. What was the first thing Paul Bremer did as consul of Iraq? He disbanded the Baath party and the Iraqi Army. So, all these soldiers were fired and were not getting paid to stay out of trouble by the coalition, but they were allowed to keep to keep their military-issue firearms. Hmm... Doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how you just might get an insurgency by doing that. Add to that the fact that, without an Iraqi Army to secure the borders, all sorts of foreign terrorists could easily slip in. Then take some draconian measures, like closing down Shiite newspapers critical of the occupation, which sparked Moqtada al-Sadr's rebellion.

Then, last spring, when most of the Sunni insurgents became concentrated in Fallujah, the city was surrounded by coalition forces for the final showdown with the foreign terrorists, ex-Baathists, and former Iraqi officers controlling the insurgency. But, as American casualties started to mount, to prevent John Kerry from getting any leverage out of the situation, the decision was made to withdraw from Fallujah, "Mission Not Accomplished." The city was handed over to... a former Baathist general. Surprise, surprise, the city soon became a miniature Taliban, women were forced back into veils, and the insurgents had a safe haven from which to launch attacks with impunity. The final assault on Fallujah was postponed until after the American election in November to prevent a backlash against the heavy American casualties this might incur. Given such a long head start, the insurgent leaders (al-Zarqawi and Co.) got the hell out of Dodge and dispersed to other cities, particularly Mosul, where headless bodies are now being found in the streets on a regular basis. It's hard not to draw the conclusion that the insurgency benefited from the delayed assault on Fallujah. Perhaps if the military had simply been allowed to finish the job last April, the insurgency would be far weaker now and more Sunnis might have gone to the polls last Sunday, rather than call for boycotts and postponement.

Of course, the majority Shiites didn't want any postponement in the elections they expected to dominate. The fewer Sunnis who vote, the more power the Shiites get. Add to self-interest the fact that the most respected Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, decreed that it is the religious duty of Shiites to vote. Most of the Shiites voted for Sistani's slate of anonymous candidates. They did so primarily out of a sense of religious duty. Their respected ayatollah told them to vote for his United Iraqi Alliance, and they did so in large numbers. Sistani has been agitating for elections for more than a year, and is the man who derailed Bush's original "smoke-filled room" caucus plans for post-war Iraq. He never would have countenanced a delay.

Sistani is of the Najaf school of Islamic clericism, which holds that religious leaders should stay out of politics except when absolutely necessary for the security of the followers, and even then, only to the minimum extent necessary to reestablish stability. He is unlikely to push for setting up an Iranian-style theocracy. On the other hand, his main Shiite rival, al-Sadr, with whose militias American soldiers had to fight last year, does favor a more activist clergy. Sistani has the upper hand now, but the moderates in Russia (Kerensky, et al.) had the upper hand in post-czarist Russia, and as the situation turned from bad to worse, Russians turned to the radicals under Lenin. Similarly, the moderate Socialists in Weimar Germany gave way to the extremists under Hitler as the situation in Germany became increasingly desperate. If the situation under the new Shiite-dominated government doesn't improve, probably sooner rather than later, the Shiites will choose the radicals out of sheer desperation.

But there is a third main group in Iraq, the Kurds. They did better than the Sunnis and will probably form a coalition with Al-Sistani's party and probably the more secular Allawi's party as well, leaving the Sunnis out in the cold. The Kurds have long agitated for an independent Kurdistan that would encompass all the Kurdish-majority areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. While their population is spread over these 4 nations, they tend to view themselves as Kurds, not Turks or Iraqis who happen to be Kurdish. After the Gulf War of 1991, the Coalition forces imposed two demilitarized "no-fly" zones in Iraq: one in the south to protect the Shiites, the other in the north to protect the Kurds from Saddam's genocidal ambitions. Under the protection of U.S. warplanes, Kurds established something of a de-facto state in Northern Iraq. They gained almost total autonomy from the central government in Baghdad and want to maintain that autonomy under the new government.

Some Kurdish intellectuals and activists set up tents outside the polling places in Kurdish-majority areas for an unofficial vote on whether Kurdistan should be an autonomous province in Iraq or declare independence. Unfortunately, from all reports, the independence crowd won overwhelmingly. At the very least, the Kurds will demand the creation of a "Kurdish Autonomous Region", almost entirely self-governing, though that might not sit well with the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.

The situation in the north is compounded by the competing claims of Kurds and Sunni Arabs to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the spiritual capital of the Kurdish people. Saddam uprooted many of the Kurdish families in the area and replaced them with Arab Sunnis more loyal to Saddam. Now, with Saddam out of power, many ethnic Kurds have returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their old homes, which have been occupied by Sunnis in their absence. This has led to conflicts between Arabs and Kurds that have jeopardized local stability and threatened to bring in Turkey to intervene. Turkey has already had to put down a Kurdish revolt within its borders at the cost of more than 35,000 lives, and fears that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will relight the flames of rebellion among Turkish Kurds. Turkish political and military leaders have stated point-blank that the powerful Turkish military will not stand idly by and allow the Iraqi Kurds to gain independence.

So, the low turnout among Sunnis is likely to lead to a strengthened insurgency and possibly civil war. The high turnout among Kurds could very easily lead to lead to a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. And the high turnout among Shiites could lead to attempts by some of Sistani's rivals to set up an Iranian-style theocracy.

Tell me again why we have cause to celebrate.