A Peaceful Alternative for Iraq

By Jonathan Steele
Published July 20th 2004 in Taipei Times

While the latest damning reports on intelligence provoke new argument in Britain and the US on whether the war made their countries and the world safer, here in Iraq the debate is different.

Iraqis are not focused on whether things would be better had the invasion not happened. What they want to know is how and when the manifestly unsafe world they face every day -- from kidnappings to assassinations and car bombs -- is going to change. They also constantly argue whether the presence of foreign forces makes it better or worse.

To seek an answer from a rarely reported Baghdad source, I went this week to the northern suburb of Kadhimiya. Off a lane where market traders push rickety handcarts toward the bazaar, steps lead into the courtyard of a Shia religious school.

Remove your shoes, and you are ushered into a mercifully cool room with deep carpets and even deeper armchairs. Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi and four guests rise in friendly greeting. While many Iraqi clerics exude a sanctimonious, mildly impatient air with foreigners despite their elaborate expressions of welcome, Khalisi has a look of genuine attentiveness. He listens and discusses, rather than just declaiming.

His grandfather was a distinguished ayatollah who led the Shia opposition to Britain's occupation 80 years ago. His father was a learned imam. He himself spent 23 years in exile in Iran and Syria, returning when former president Saddam Hussein was gone. Now he is general secretary of a new movement that calls for an end to the occupation by peaceful means.

The media focus on violence and the generally positive foreign coverage of the efforts of Prime Minister Iayad Allawi's new government "to defeat the insurgency" have created a false impression -- that the government's opponents use only force, and that those who support peace support the government, and therefore the occupation.

Khalisi's movement gives the lie to that. Set up a few weeks ago, the National Foundation Congress brought about 450 Iraqis together at a Baghdad hotel. They included Nasserites, leftists and Baathists from the era before Saddam turned the party into a personal fiefdom, as well as Kurds, Christians, representatives of the powerful Sunni movement the Islamic Clerics' Association, which has close links with Falluja and other strongly anti-American cities, and Khalisi's own Shia friends and colleagues.

The movement picked a secretariat of 25, which meets twice a week. It has decided not to take part in the government-supported national conference, which is due to convene this month as part of the US program to set up a surrogate legislature.

"We see no benefit in institutions designed to implement American plans," says the sheikh. "If the conference were to set a timetable for a US troop pullout, it would be worth it -- but in the context of the occupation, the conference is powerless and we don't want to disappoint our supporters. We will, however, take part in the elections in January."

The congress does not reject armed resistance, saying it is any people's "national right," but it prefers peaceful politics. It supports the restoration of the Iraqi army, criticizes the formation of new militias such as those of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and wants the old militias disbanded. It is also worried by Allawi's draconian new powers.

"Iraqis are looking for security and can be seduced by hope. Extreme dictatorships are always formed in a context when nations seek stability. It happened when the shah took power in Iran, with Ataturk in Turkey, and Saddam Hussein here," Khalisi said.

Wamidh Nadhmi, a UK-trained political scientist at Baghdad University and a veteran Arab nationalist, is the congress spokesman.

Its importance for him, as a lifelong secularist, is its bridge across Iraq's numerous divides.

"National unity cannot grow in a country that emphasizes sectarian divisions or expects ethnic strife," he told me in the comfortable study of his house across the Tigris from Kadhimiya.

"There has to be reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias. We're not interested in religion as such, but we feel that by bridging the gaps, the ground will be better prepared for a national struggle," he said.

The real division in Iraq, he says, is not between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shia, or secular and religious, but between "the pro-occupation camp and the anti-occupation camp." In his view, "the pro-occupation people are either completely affiliated with the US and Britain, in effect puppets, or they saw no way to overthrow Saddam without occupation. Let's agree not to indulge in slander but discuss the issue openly. Unfortunately, the pro-occupation people tend not to distinguish between resistance and terrorism, or between anti-occupation civil society and those who use violence. They call us all Saddam remnants, reactionaries, revenge-seekers, mercenaries, misguided or foreigners."

The congress is eager for the January elections. Under the system of proportional representation worked out by the UN, every list should have a chance. It needs only a declaration by 500 supporters to get on the ballot. Iraq will be treated as a single constituency, so that every 27,000 votes will produce one seat in the 275-seat national assembly.

The battle lines are becoming clearer. In Sunni districts, the Iraqi Islamic Party (banned under Saddam) has a virtual monopoly of organization. Shia parties say they will not even open offices there.

Among the Shias, where several groups operate, the current trend is to produce a single list, according to Adil al-Adib, a senior member of Dawa, the oldest and, according to opinion polls, most popular party.

Rather than competing, each party prefers to get as many Shias into the assembly as possible. Calling itself the Shia Family, "the list will include Dawa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, candidates supporting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and maybe people with Moqtada al-Sadr," Abib said. It will provide a comeback for the Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who has been building links with Shia clergy.

"He is an enthusiastic defender of Shia rights. He'll be on the list," Adib said.

There are major fault lines. Dawa and SCIRI are in the current government, which has no timetable for US withdrawal.

Sistani and al-Sadr are critical. The Iraqi Islamic Party is also in government, but strongly linked to Sunni clerics who oppose the US presence.

By making an early end to the occupation the top electoral issue, Khalisi's pan-Iraqi group hopes to be the catalyst. It deserves more publicity and support.