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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Politics, Power, and Basra

Sometimes, we need to be reminded that people actually live in Iraq. As much as we try to pretend otherwise, nearly all the violence in that country stems from our invasion and occupation. In removing a dictator, we totally destroyed the power structure. The result was immediate chaos.

But people are orderly creatures who dislike disorder. The impulse toward order isn't always an impulse toward law -- or, at least, human law. People join street gangs not to commit crimes, but to enjoy the safety in numbers. In a lawless area, any order is welcome and if that order comes from dominance, then so be it. The street gang, the vigilante, and the dictator all come from the same place -- the need to make order from chaos.

So the neocon dreamers who foresaw a shining example of democracy in the middle east ignored basic truths; that authoritarianism is seen as better than lawlessness and that when governmental structures fail, people turn to secondary social institutions. These institutions can be gangs, they can be religious orders, they can be political movements, and they can be any combination of these.

When the pendulum swings to the farthest extremes of lawlessness, the human reaction is to swing it back using the farthest extremes of lawfulness -- authoritarianism and dominance. If people won't live orderly, you make them live orderly. If people won't obey the law, then at least they'll obey you. Strength becomes law and force becomes order.

Of course, there will always be disagreements over what constitutes order. Western liberal democracies don't seem very orderly. The list of things you're barred from doing is much, much shorter than the list of things allowed. People can hold different ideas and work at cross-purposes to the government and fellow citizens. Subversion and dissent are allowed. Groups are free to insult and hate each other.

From the outside, democracy doesn't look a lot different from chaos.

So, even in a democratic context, the authoritarian impulse survives. Especially in response to recent disorder. In these conditions, democracy becomes only a pretense of legitimacy. People are free to vote, but those they vote for are already chosen. Power, out of fear of a return to chaos, protects itself. In even the very best case scenario, the authoritarian turns to oppression. In the worst, violence.

This is the case in Iraq and the Dawa party's recent skirmish with the Medhi Army. If -- as the simpleminded bumperstickers tell us -- freedom isn't free, then neither is authoritarianism. Governments protect themselves first and their citizens second. In fact, when the individual person is sacrificed to protect the collective government, this is called "the common good" -- even when that sacrifice serves only the government.

Baghdad Observer:

This is the tale of two Shiite fighters buried in the same cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. In the Valley of Peace, the largest Muslim cemetery in the world, these men’s bodies buried, blessed and mourned. One was an Iraqi soldier. The other was a Medhi Army fighter from Muqtada al Sadr's army.

Mohammed Sami was a father of three little girls and a boy. His wife will now raise them alone. Iraqi Security Forces descended on Basra last week to wrest control of the city from Shiite militants. The Medhi Army fought back and the battle spread to Baghdad and neighboring provinces. Sami, a militia member, was killed in battles in Karbala with the Iraqi Security Forces.

His cousin, Ahmed Moussa Hassan, buried him in one of the 100 graves dug for dead fighters by their Medhi Army peers.

"Mohammed was defending himself when they came to detain him, and the Sayed (the honorofic title for Muqtada al Sadr) told us that to defend one's self is a duty," Hassan said. "All the blood that has been shed is upon the conscience of Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, because it is them who caused this strife."

President Bush basically congratulated Maliki on this attack. He called it a "positive" moment and told everyone that Maliki was cracking down on lawlessness. Muqtada al-Sadr, the Medhi Army leader, had called for "civil disobedience" in protest of arrests of Medhi members and a lack of security in Sadr city. Maliki reacted badly, killing at least 50 peaceful protesters. This escalated into a full-scale battle over days -- a battle that Maliki seemed to be losing.

The real reason for all of this was government's reflex toward self-protection. Maliki's nation wasn't in danger from the Mehdi Army, his position was. Juan Cole explains in Salon:

Three main motivations [for Maliki] present themselves: control of petroleum smuggling, staying in power (including keeping U.S. troops around to ensure it), and the achievement of a Shiite super-province in the south. A southern super-province would spell a soft partition of the country, benefiting Shiites in the long term while cutting Sunnis out of substantial oil revenues, both licit and illicit. But all of the motivations have to do with something President Bush established as a benchmark in January 2007: upcoming provincial elections.

The Sadr Movement leaders themselves are convinced that the recent setting of a date for provincial elections, on Oct. 1, 2008, and al-Maliki's desire to improve the government's position in advance of the elections, precipitated the prime minister's attack. It is widely thought that the Sadrists might sweep to power in the provinces in free and fair elections, since the electorate is deeply dissatisfied with the performance of the major incumbent party in the southern provinces, the Islamic Supreme Council of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

As I said, for authoritarian governments, democracy becomes only a pretense of legitimacy. Sure, you can vote, but you can only vote for candidates who have the advantage of being alive and for parties that enjoy the benefits of existence. Likewise, Bush's reaction to all of this was pretense -- he tried to spin a politically motivated mass assassination attempt into a triumph of law and order.

Of course, on the other side of the conflict are other deaths. Baghdad Observer tells us of one of them.

Across the cemetery a poor Shiite family from Najaf laid their son to rest. The 28-year-old's job as an Iraqi soldier supported his sisters, brothers and his parents. His father, Malik al Shimmeri, paid a $500 bribe to get his son, Zuhair, his job. Now he is riddled with the guilt that the job ultimately killed his son.

"He never wanted the job, he hated the violence," said Al-Shimmeri. "I wanted him to help with money. I made him do it and now he is dead."

His son’s death filled him with both guilt and anger at the Shiite Mahdi Army that many people now support more out of fear than love.

"My son, Zuhair, was martyred at the hands of the criminal terrorists in Kut," he said. "Maliki must pursue the criminals and execute them."

And thus is generations of unrest and violence born. In the end, it was a third authoritarian force who brought about a ceasfire. Iran. The US pretends that Iran had backed only the Mehdi Army, but it also backs Maliki's government.

All of these governments and parties protected themselves -- the US included. And the people they've killed or sent to die didn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. They'll keep killing and keep fighting, but the people they send to do it are just tools to them. They aren't as real as the Dawa Party or the Mehdi Army or the neocon dreamers.

People may have to live in Iraq, but all of the big players there believe people also have to die. War crimes in the name of law, mass killing in the name of safety, assassination in the name of democracy.

Iraq stopped making any damned sense a long time ago.


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