Election Year 2004: Why is the U.S. Refusing Iraqi Demands For Immediate Direct Elections?

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The U.S. has rejected calls by Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric for immediate direct elections in Iraq instead planning indirect elections to form a transitional assembly that would then form an interim Iraqi government. We speak with Iraq blogger and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. [includes transcript]

As the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primaries approach, election season is entering full-swing. In November, U.S. citizens will go to the polls to elect their president. But in U.S.-occupied Iraq it’s a different story. Washington’s policy there is to stifle the calls from Iraqis for immediate direct elections.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has repeatedly demanded a swift electoral process–one man one vote–to determine a new Iraqi government. But the United States has rejected the calls.

Washington wants to have indirect elections to form a transitional Iraq assembly that would then form an interim government.

The Bush administration said yesterday it is reviewing how the new government will be selected after Sistani warned of increased political tensions and violence if direct elections are not held within months.

But the U.S. has maintained a countrywide direct election would be not be plausible before the June 30 deadline for a political hand-over to Iraqis.

Top U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer told CNN last night, “We’re democrats to our very bones. We have been practicing democracy for 200 years. Elections are always the best way to select a representative government. The problem we have is time.”

  • Juan Cole, is Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the History Department of the University of Michigan. He runs an analytical website called “Informed Comment” in which he provides a daily round-up of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. Cole speaks fluent Arabic, Persian and Urdu and has lived all over the Muslim world for extended periods of time. He also continues to research Iran and Shi`ite Islam, the subject of his Sacred Space and Holy War. This book collects some of his work on the history of the Shiite branch of Islam in modern Iraq and the Gulf.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A short time ago, I spoke with professor Juan Cole. He’s the professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. He runs a analytical website called Informed Comment in which he provides a daily roundup of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. The address is Juancole.com. Cole speaks fluent Arabic, Persian and Urdu and he has also lived all over the Muslim world. He continues to research Iran and Shiite Islam, the subject of his Sacred Space and Holy War. The book collects some of the work on the history of Shiite Islam in Iraq in the modern Gulf. I asked him to talk about Paul Bremer’s comments.

JUAN COLE: The problem from the point of view of the Iraqis who want free and open elections is that the elections that are now in visage by Mr. Bremer have a very narrow base. They will be conducted by municipal or provincial councils which were appointed by–on the whole by the Americans or the British. It is those handpicked members of provincial councils who will choose the majority of the delegates to the electoral college, which in turn will choose a parliament. The American appointed interim governing council, which oversees all of Iraq will also be able to appoint a certain number of persons to the most basic level of the electorate. This is not a democratic election at all. This is an election based upon the traces of a fairly small number of handpicked delegates installed by the U.S. and Great Britain.

AMY GOODMAN: The Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has rejected the plan for a transitional national assembly chosen by a caucus of delegates to assume power on June 30th. You have the Shiites calling for majority rule and although Bremer says he supports it, it doesn’t look that way?

JUAN COLE: Yes. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has insisted that these elections, which are scheduled for the end of May, be held on a one-person, one-vote basis throughout the country. He wants this, he says because only such elections could guarantee that the will of the sovereign Iraqi people was represented in the government that emerged. So, he is talking very much like Jean Jacques Rousseau. He is talking about sovereignty residing in the body politic. He thinks that an election based upon these appointed provincial councils simply would not be democratic; it would not have democratic results. I think he’s also afraid that the U.S. and the United Kingdom when they appointed these members of provincial councils, often favored ex-bosses who had cooperated at some point with them in overthrowing Saddam and who tended to be semi Arabs. I think Sistani is afraid that these councils will produce a government that’s not only not legitimate but also not representative.

AMY GOODMAN: You have an unusual situation where the Islamic clerics, the Shiite clerics are calling for elections, and the U.S. is saying, hold on. At the same time that here in the United States we’re going through our own election process. This is not very much emphasized in the press. Now, you read the world’s press, the Arab press every night. And people can go to your website at juancole.com and see the digest of that every day. Can you talk about what we’re missing when we watch and read papers, and watch television in this country that you are gathering from your journeys through the Arab press?

JUAN COLE: Oh, the American public is missing a lot of the story on the ground in Iraq. The level of detail that you can get from the American press is usually very low. And there’s not much emphasis upon the speeches and the actions of actual Iraqis, including members even of the American appointed interim governing council. Most of the Americans who follow the story from the American press don’t know where these individuals stand on various issues. It’s only when a crisis emerges that they’re zeroed in on. So, I would say that the agency of the Iraqi people, the ability of the Iraqi people to influence events, to have an impact on how the coalition provisional authority develops, all of this has been downplayed. A story in the western press usually has centered on the American administration of the country or the American military and it has tended, I think, so to cut both a lot of slack. I have friends on the ground in Iraq. I don’t mean to put down what they’re doing. A lot of them are doing excellent work, but there have been a lot of problems in the way this has unfolded, and those problems, I think, are much more serious than has reflected in most of the mainstream reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: What would Iraq look like if they had elections today. What would the government look like?

JUAN COLE: Well, if you had a parliamentary election on a free and open basis at the moment, I think it’s probably true that a lot of the parliamentary deputies would be radicals of one sort or another. And this is the thing that Mr. Bremer is afraid of, and the reason for which he refuses to have the open elections now. I think the radical Shiite cleric Mukhtadar Sader, who is more or less a follower of the ideas of Ayatollah Khomieni in Iran, who would like to see the Shiite clerics rule, and see a strict form of Islamic law implemented and so forth, that his followers likely would get a good third of the seats from the Shiite areas, that other religious parties would do well among the Shiites, that there is no major secular party that’s demonstrated any real strength or momentum since the fall of Saddam that would attract Shiite votes. In the Sunni areas, I think you would get semi fundamentalist Muslims and ex-bosses or maybe Sunni Arab nationalist who tilt toward the Baath. The Kurdish areas would elect the two main parties, are the ones that the U.S. has been cooperating with in the last ten years, the Kurdish side of it is not so mysterious, but all of these have their own agendas. The Shiites want very much Shiite rule and Islamic law from a Shiite perspective. The Kurds want much more autonomy than the Arabs for the most part want to grant them, and a lot of very key conflicts about the future of Iraq have just been postponed, and it’s worrisome to me that the United States seems intent upon withdrawing its civilian administration from the country and just letting the Iraqis fight it out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to professor Juan Cole, who teaches modern Middle East and south Asian history at the University of Michigan and runs an analytic website called Informed Comment, in which he provides a daily roundup of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. The website, juancole.com. The resistance on the ground right now, the latest news–another U.S soldier killed. Ukrainian troops firing over the heads of Kut protesters. Another helicopter — U.S. helicopter downed. Who are the resistance today after the capture of Saddam Hussein?

JUAN COLE: Well, the resistance is multiple. The main source of resistance has been Sunni Arabs, of various backgrounds, some of them are fundamentalist Muslims. Some of them are Sunni Arab nationalists. Some of them are remnants of the old Baath party and its military and security apparatus. So, probably 60% of the attacks have occurred in the Sunni Arab heartland. But then there have been attacks on coalition forces in the Shiite areas. Not so many, and for the most part, they have tended not to be very successful. There’s been relatively little loss of life or injury from these kinds of attacks, presumably from Shiite forces who are dissatisfied at one point or another with the American and British administration of the country. The Kurdish regions have been relatively quiet in this respect, but there’s another kind of social violence and trouble that has emerged occasionally beyond an act of resistance to what they think of as the occupation. And that is urban disturbances by crowds with various sorts of grievances. We have seen, as you say, in Kut and Samara, unemployment riots, people demonstrating, becoming violent, even over their lack of jobs and lack of money. The long fuel lines, the lack of infrastructure and so forth. They’re becoming hopeless about the situation, and demanding that the coalition provisional authority do something about it. But then there have also been Shiite protests demanding Islamic law in Baghdad and in Basra. There have been communal riots in Kirkuk in the northern city, which is one-third Turkmen, one-third Kurdish and one-third Arab and the ethnic mix is volatile and the question of the future of the city, what ethnic group is going to dominate it is very much in play. And in each of these kinds of urban disturbances, coalition troops have sometimes fired on demonstrators and killed them. I think the Ukrainians actually initially reported that they had fired off their heads as the wire services said, but it’s now reported that a good seven civilians were injured, I think one unconfirmed report of a death.

AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news from the former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, and why you label that story in your website, juancole.com, “A Cheney coup de’at “?

JUAN COLE: I’m not a Washington insider, so I cannot be sure of this, but it’s beginning to seem to me that there’s some evidence for Cheney, vice president Dick Cheney, playing a kind of role in this administration with regard to foreign policy and military affairs that is simply very unusual with regard to the roles of the past vice presidents. Cheney was part of the Project for a New American Century, which attempted to put pressure on Bill Clinton in 1998 to go to war against Iraq. So, we know that he came into office with a determination to have an Iraq war. That’s not a surprise, and O’Neill’s reports confirms this, but what’s surprising about what O’Neill says is that George W. Bush himself appears, very early on in the administration, to have been persuaded by the case for a war against Iraq, and that’s surprised me, because in his campaign, at least, he had argued against foreign adventurism and against nation-building, and had criticized Clinton even for going into little Haiti and so forth. And so, I had assumed that the people in the administration who were part of the Project for the New American Century, like Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Fife and others, had probably been frustrated early in the Bush administration because Bush probably wasn’t so gung-ho on those sorts of things. But now the picture that O’Neill paints is one of Bush sort of asking for a pretext for an Iraq war, even as early as January and February of 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, professor of Middle East studies, Modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His website is juancole.com. This is Democracy Now!

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