David Enders, independent journalist with Big Noise Films and author of Baghdad Bulletin: Dispatches on the American Occupation
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies look poised for a sweeping victory in provincial polls held Saturday. We speak to two independent journalists just back from Iraq, Rick Rowley and David Enders. Rowley said, "Many Iraqis saw this, the votes they were casting in this election, as a way to end the American occupation." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
We turn now to Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies look poised for a sweeping victory in provincial polls held Saturday. Official results will not be published for weeks. But leaders of rival Shia parties acknowledged today Maliki’s State of Law coalition appears to be heading for a strong win in some Shia areas.
Prime Minister Maliki gave a televised address after the polls closed Saturday.
PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: [translated] As we conclude this national epic vote, we will be impatient to learn the results. I hope this will be a strong motivation for the continuation of the political process. Moreover, I hope that we will forget all the troubles that prevailed during the period before the election to build Iraq’s future.
Iraqi citizen, Abbass, lauded the government for the heavy security and relative lack of violence on Election Day.
ABBASS: [translated] The security situation was very good, and the citizens felt safe to go to the polling centers and even felt free to choose the list that they wanted. No one was feeling pressure on him, and this is a simple right of a citizen.
Only half of Iraq’s 14 million registered voters went to the polls Saturday, the lowest turnout in elections held since the US-led invasion.
Many Iraqi and US officials hailed the elections as a success. President Obama called them "a victory for all Iraqis." But tens of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis were unable to cast their vote. Secular politician Mithal al-Alusi said many people who had been forced to move from their homes because of violence could not vote, because their names were not on the voter list.
MITHAL AL-ALUSI: [translated] The major crime by the independent electoral commission — and I am skeptical of this independence, as they are weak in front of the bigger parties and were appointed by these big parties — the major crime is at the expense of the refugees. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands in Mosul, Baghdad, Kut, Diwaniyah, Amara, Muthana, Nasiriyah, in all of the Iraqi provinces, they were unable to vote.
I’m joined right now here in the firehouse studio by independent journalist David Enders and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. They’ve reported from Iraq for the past few years. Rick just flew in from Baghdad this morning.
Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Rick, let’s start with you. Describe what happened on Saturday. Set the scene for us.
Well, it was actually really surprising to us, as it has been in the last few years we’ve been there, the improvement in security. We were worried. There were threats of violence. We were worried about the curfew being really hard, so we spent the night in Sadr City with Fatah al-Sheikh, the leading Sadrist candidate there, and in the morning went out to vote.
And it felt more like a holiday than like a voting day. I mean, the traffic was shut down, so there were hundreds of soccer games on the streets, like the children were out in the streets. But traveling around the city, the turnout was remarkably low. None of the polling stations looked particularly busy. Sadr City seemed like one of the busier areas, possibly because there are fewer internally displaced people from Sadr City.
And talking to people as they were coming out, people — I mean, we met many people who said there were voting for Maliki, as the preliminary results suggest, and they were voting for him as the most expedient way to end the occupation. So I think, I mean, an important thing to remember is, the US likes to try to cast elections in Iraq as referendums on the legitimacy of the occupation, to see every election as proof that America has defeated the insurgency, but many Iraqis saw this, the votes they were casting in this election, as a way to end the American occupation.
The positions of all of the parties?
Well, yes, as I think it’s testament to the strength of — the military and political strength of especially the Shia resistance that all the parties, with the exception of ISCI, the Islamic party that was the big winner in last — the elections of 2005, all of the parties want, are calling for publicly, a rapid American withdrawal, as quick as is expedient. And al-Majlis al-Aala, the ISCI, the Islamist party that won in the last election, appears to have been swept from power, based by the preliminary results that we have right now.
What happened with the car bombing this weekend?
There was — there have been several car bombings. I mean, there has been a lot of election-related violence — I mean, less than in previous years, but still a significant amount. The other candidate that we were following closely was Sheikh Aifan, who’s the leading candidate of the Awakening militias in Fallujah. And there has been constant fighting between him and the Iraqi Islamic Party, his main opponent inside Fallujah. And there was a car bomb while we were filming with him, where two of his men were killed and two were sent to the hospital.
The Awakening militias, which have been armed and funded by the Americans — I mean, America’s main military proxies inside of Anbar have publicly said that if they do not win these elections, there will be a revolution in Anbar. Basically, what the US — US has set up, you know, a system of tribal sheikhs who control Anbar for them, who have massive military and economic power, hundreds of millions — tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction contracts and a 100,000-member-strong militia that’s under their control. And if they don’t get political power through these elections to match their economic and military power, then they say that there’s going to be trouble.
And the significance of Maliki winning?
It is remarkable. Dawa was a minor party. Dawa — I mean, Maliki was chosen as a compromise prime minister, because all of the major Shiite factions couldn’t decide on who they wanted to have in power. He was seen by many as a puppet of ISCI, the Islamists who were the major power brokers in the last elections.
But because of pressure from the Sadrists, both political pressure inside parliament and also a constant military pressure as an armed resistance outside, he was forced to take a very strong line in negotiating with the Americans and pass — get a SOFA agreed to, status of forces agreement, that was signed in December that is remarkable, that basically appears on paper to be an end to the occupation. All of the US bases will be removed. The US can never use Iraq as a platform from which to launch attacks on other parts of the region. They don’t get the oil. They don’t get immunity for their contractors.
If the letter of this agreement is actually, you know, put in place, it will mean what the Sadrists and all of the more militant wings on the outside have called for anyway. So whereas the Americans used to say, or said in 2005, every vote is a vote in favor of the American presence and for the occupation, in this case the insurgency has managed to change the frame so much inside of internal Iraqi politics that a vote for Maliki looks like a vote against the occupation and a vote for the Americans to get out as quickly as they can.
David Enders, you’ve been covering Iraq for years now. What is the significance of all of this? What are the prospects now for Iraq?
Well, I think it’s exactly right, especially the issue of the status of forces agreement. Maliki has managed to really make himself look good, in a sense, in negotiating with the Americans, and I think people have responded to that. He’s also, at the same time, been able to use the American military to bring, behind the Iraqi army, stability to both Basra and Baghdad, and people are responding to that.
Any Iraqi on the street will say — you ask them, “What do you want?” The first thing they say is security, then electricity, then a job. And so, any sense that any of that is returning certainly helps Prime Minister al-Maliki’s case. Now, that’s Baghdad, Basra, central and southern Iraq.
Northern Iraq, the three Kurdish governorates didn’t vote. Kirkuk — there were no elections in Kirkuk, which is contested between Arab tribes and Kurdish tribes, and there’s the ongoing debate within the Iraqi government over whether Kirkuk should become part of the basically autonomous Kurdish region. And at every chance the Iraqi government has had to legislate that, they’ve been unable to do so. In 2004, with the governing council, the issue was tabled. In the constitution in 2006, the issue was tabled. And again, the issue has been tabled, and you have increased threats of violence. You’re still seeing sectarian violence — or rather, ethnic violence in Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. There’s still fighting going on there. So, even though there are some very positive aspects to what happened this weekend, there’s a lot left unresolved.
And overall, the power of the Kurds now?
I think it’s been weakened. I think their position has been considerably weakened by al-Maliki’s apparent popularity. And one thing in addition to the status of forces agreement, Maliki has presented himself as a nationalist, to some extent, and is calling for a unified Iraq. And it certainly seems that calls for dividing the country into a loose federalist state, which, according to some observers, was entirely inevitable a couple years ago and especially with the gains made by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and the Kurdish parties in the 2005 elections, that seemed like a distinct possibility. Now it seems that forces that would keep Iraq intact are growing in power.
The reaction to the election of Barack Obama?
Was very muted. Sheikh Aifan, actually, who we followed around in Fallujah, sort of enjoys having his picture taken with American politicians, and he’s done very well for himself, becoming essentially the US point man in the city. He had a picture with Barack Obama before the election, actually, and we said, “Well, what do you think of Obama?” He said, “Foreign policy, American foreign policy doesn’t tend to change, regardless of the president.” And I think most Iraqis feel that way. I didn’t really talk to any Iraqis who seemed to think that there was going to be a significant change. I think Bush was already sort of forced into a position of negotiating this agreement that was not what the White House had set out to negotiate. And probably no matter who was elected, we’d be moving toward a pullout.
But still, I think it’s important to say that we need to keep pushing on this, too, because although the status of forces agreement is in place, much of it hasn’t been enacted up to the point that it’s supposed to be at this point. Bucca is supposed to be empty now, by the terms of the agreement, and there’s still —
Explain what Bucca is.
Bucca is the largest US prison inside Iraq. It’s supposed to be empty now, and everyone is supposed to be in the Iraqi system, but it still has around 8,000-10,000 people in it still.
The Iraqi government is supposed to be approving every single raid and action, military action, that the US does now. That’s not really the case. The military just picks up a couple Iraqi soldiers to ride around with them, and that passes for approval. And certainly, the Special Forces raids that continue to go on don’t have any approval by anyone discernible.
So, I mean, although it’s promising what has been agreed to on paper, there’s going to be pressure back against Obama in the opposite direction. There’s going to be military people who say we need to stay there and maintain stability. And so, we need to —- people need to, both in Iraq and here, give some push back in the other direction to help support him to make the decision that needs to be made, which is to continue with this -—
And the military contractors? I mean, Barack Obama has not said he would ban them, although the Iraqi government said that they wouldn’t give a new contract to Blackwater.
Absolutely. That’s an incredibly key point, yes. The Iraqi government is way ahead of Obama on this issue. They’ve withdrawn Blackwater’s license to operate in the country, and they’ve removed contractor immunity. So even if Obama wants to keep them in, I mean, you know, a government now that’s restrained — I mean, that has to appeal to the popular nationalism that demands, you know, national sovereignty and demands that these contractors be kept in check, I mean, that needs to be supported by actions here in the US, too.
What about Iran, Rick Rowley? This is the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, 1979, 2009. What about its power in Iraq?
That is — well, Iraqis say — I mean, many, especially Sunnis — most of the Sunnis who we interview, the people in the Awakening, the people in the Islamic party, say that there were two occupations of Iraq that happened at the same time: an Iranian and an American occupation. And it was true that ISCI, the Islamist party that the US, you know, in one way or another, put in power in the country, was formed in Iran. And the Badr Brigades, which formed the core of the security services in 1994, were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. So these parties, which were identified clearly by Iraqis with both the American occupation and with Iranian foreign influence, they’re there seeing a loss in power now.
Iran is always going to be very powerful inside Iraq. They’re neighbors. They’re incredibly close and linked culturally, religiously. But there has been a massive backlash and a reaction in Iraq against what they see as foreign meddling, both from the United States and from Iran.
You are both just back from Iraq. You are headed to Afghanistan, Rick, in the next few months. The level of violence we’ve seen both in Pakistan, with these attacks with the US behind them, the unmanned drones, and Afghanistan?
Yeah. Well, the thing that I think is important is that — I mean, there’s been lots of talk about taking the lessons from Iraq and applying them to Afghanistan. And there’s huge problems with that, especially because the lessons that people are getting from Iraq are, I think, the wrong lessons.
People look at the surge, are talking about surging into Afghanistan, copying the surge that worked in Iraq. But, you know, just a cursory examination of the facts shows that the surge wasn’t what changed the course of the war in Iraq; it was the Awakening, it was these tribes in Anbar that began to see — well, that were scared by a sectarian war that happened and began to see the Americans as, you know, less dangerous to them than the Iraqi government, which they saw as an instrument of Iran. So they were, very specifically, by the sectarian violence, forced into an alliance with the Americans. That’s not going to happen in Afghanistan.
Well, that does it for our show, and I want to thank you both for being with us. David Enders and Rick Rowley have been our guests. They are both just back from Iraq.
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