Robert Fisk on Iraq Elections: Iraqis Voting for “Freedom From Foreign Occupation”

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A day after elections in Iraq, we go to Baghdad to speak with Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. Fisk says, “What this election has done is not actually a demonstration of people who demand democracy, but they want freedom of a different kind, freedom to vote, but also freedom from foreign occupation. And if they are betrayed in this, then we are going to look back and regret the broken promises. [includes rush transcript]

Millions of Iraqis turned out to cast ballots Sunday in the country’s first multi-party elections in half a century.

At least 44 people were killed and over 100 wounded in suicide bombings, shootings and mortar attacks. The attacks came amid unprecedented levels of security–including shoot-on-sight curfews, closed foreign borders, a ban on cars and travel restrictions within Iraq.

Iraqi voters headed to more than 30,000 polling stations set up across the country, with the polling beginning at 7 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. Election officials originally said 72 percent of the country’s 13 million registered voters turned out to vote. They later revised the number to 8 million, or just over 60 percent.

With foreign monitors mostly staying away for fear of kidnapping, it was difficult to assess the fairness of the election or accuracy of the turnout estimates. But the U.N.’s electoral adviser in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, said he was encouraged by early indications.

Meanwhile in at a news conference in Washington, President Bush hailed the elections as a resounding success.

  • President Bush, White House press conference, January 30, 2005.

President Bush speaking yesterday at the White House. While officials in Washington hailed the Iraq elections as a resounding success in democracy, there was a marked division in voting turnout within the country. The turnout was high in Shia and Kurdish-dominated regions, but in Sunni areas the number of voters was much lower. In Samarra for example, streets were reportedly deserted and fewer than 1,400 ballots were cast by a population of 200,000. Tens of thousands of Iraqi expatriates in 14 other countries also voted.

Iraqis were electing a 275-member transitional National Assembly, which will draft a new constitution, and pick the country’s next president and two vice presidents. The president, in turn, will select a prime minister. Preliminary results are expected in about six days, with a full result not due for 10 days.

Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, writes in his latest article, “It was the sight of thousands of Shias, the women in black “hijab” covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away. If Osama bin Laden had called these elections an apostasy, many did not heed his Wahabi threats. They came to claim their rightful power in the land–that is why Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the grand marja of the Shias of Iraq, told them to vote–and woe betide the US and British if they do not get it.”

  • Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent.

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

AMY GOODMAN: At a news conference in Washington, President Bush hailed the elections as a resounding success.

PRESIDENT BUSH: By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the antidemocratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins. And they have demonstrated the kind of courage that is always the foundation of self-government. Some Iraqis were killed while exercising their rights as citizens. We also mourn the American and British military personnel who lost their lives today. Their sacrifices were made in a vital cause of freedom, peace in a troubled region and a more secure future for us all. The Iraqi people themselves made this election a resounding success.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush, speaking yesterday at the white house, while officials in Washington hailed the Iraq elections as a resounding success in democracy, a marked division in voting turnout within Iraq. The turnout was high and Shia and Kurdish dominated regions I don’t understand, but in Sunni areas the number of voters was much lower. We turn now to Baghdad to Independent reporter Robert Fisk. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert.


AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Can you describe what you have experienced over the last day?

ROBERT FISK: Well, I have to say, as a person who is regularly cynical about the Middle East, and I think with good reason, it was a very moving experience to see so many hundreds and thousands of Shia Muslims in Baghdad walking against the sound of bombs and mortar fire. I counted 30 incoming mortar rounds quite close to us as I walked to one polling station within two minutes. All these families sometimes are bringing along their children, carrying their babies in their arms going to vote. The Shiites decided to vote. They abided by the instructions of the supreme Shiite leader, the marja, Ali al-Sistani who said it was more important to vote than fasting at Ramadan or prayer. And when you went into the polling stations, you could talk to them and the American appointed administration insisted that television cameras could only film in five polling stations. Four of them naturally were Shiite, which were nearly crowded with voters, one for upper-class Sunni which would have some voters and none for lower class Sunni areas where, of course, there wouldn’t be any. But we could move around as newspaper journalists quite freely from polling station to polling station and we had to walk because the roads were closed with no traffic except for American military patrols and Iraqi police.

And, you know, to see these people coming as one, as families with all their identification papers and dutifully having the ink put on their fingers to prevent fraud at the polls and then going to vote almost all of them in my area here for the Iraqi alliance, the Shiite Iraqi alliance, it showed that, you know, here we were, you could feel the air pressure changing with explosion of mortars and the first two suicide bombers blew themselves up not far from us, killing at least nine of the almost 60 people who were to be killed in the past 24 hours and there they were, they went through security checks and voted. And that, I suppose, is what we want people to do. The catch, of course, is that the Shiites were not voting for democracy, although they’d very much like to have it and believe in it. Many of them expressed their views forthrightly inside the polling station. They were coming to vote because al-Sistani told them to. “We’re coming to vote because we weren’t allowed to do so before. We’re coming to vote because we want the Americans to leave.”

Now it is all very well for the American media that they came to vote for democracy. They probably did. But they also came because they think and believe and are convinced of the fact that by voting that they’ll have a free country without an occupation force. If they are denied this, if they feel they are betrayed that their vote is worth nothing, of course a different question arises. What will they think of democracy and will they join the insurgency? The Kurds, of course, voted for their own autonomy and they are the most pro-American of all Iraqis and in a sense, you see, although they voted in the Iraqi election, they were in a sense trying to continue to vote themselves out of Iraq. The more autonomy they had, and the flags you saw in the streets were Kurdistan not Iraqi, the nearer they are to the independents which Kurdish people have been demanding for so many decades. Indeed at least 200 years.

So, what you’ve got was an election which showed immense courage on behalf of the Shiites. Perhaps less courage on the Kurds who anyways live in the most stable area of Iraq. Nonetheless, they went to vote and have been threatened in the past and a total abstention by Sunni Muslims and the latter, of course, is — this is the problem. If there is to be a national assembly, which is generally representative of the Iraqi people and this election was for a government, not for an assembly to choose a constitution, upon which there must be a referendum, another election for a new government, and then what is the legitimacy of a new parliament? It’s 20% of the population. The only section of the population which is actively and violently resisting the Americans is not represented. This is the real problem, you see. Either the Shiites are going to find themselves betrayed because what they want is not going to be forthcoming; of course they want to run the next government. They want to be — they would like this to be a Shia country. They don’t want an Islamic republic, but they want power because they are 60% of the population and for 100 years, they haven’t been able to be represented in that way.

What this election has done is not actually a demonstration of people who demand democracy, but they want freedom of a different kind, freedom to vote, but also freedom from foreign occupation. And if they are betrayed in this, then we are going to look back and regret the broken promises. But certainly even the Iraqi soldiers guarding one of the polling stations and the fact that they were all wearing black hoods so they couldn’t be identified tells you the dismal sense of security here with the same thing — we want the Americans to go. But, of course, we’re not seeing any promises to do that. And Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister who, of course, was a former CIA agent and was appointed by the Americans, who may well be reappointed with their assistance as head of a coalition new government after the parliament is formed, all he says is we don’t want the Americans to leave yet, but this is a great victory over terrorism. It was only yesterday morning from his bunker-like office in the so-called green zone where he is protected by the Americans and the British, he solemnly and publicly on television cast his vote and urged all Iraqis to go and vote like he did. But, of course, they can’t vote like he did. They had to go out into the streets where there is a lot of danger from suicide bombings and mortars where Mr. Allawi was quite safe. That is part of the pattern in life in Iraq now.

Again, I repeat, it was a very moving thing to see so many Shiites — of course this was also repeated in other cities, particularly in Basra in the south and Najaf, Kerba and Kufa — taking their entire families, walking silently through the streets. As I say, the air pressure changed with explosions and just heading in silence to the polling station because they had made a decision that they would vote, whatever. Very impressive.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, I want to ask you, Robert Fisk, about Kurdistan and a report in your competitor, in The Guardian of London that possibly Iraq could soon have its first Kurdish president or Prime Minister with discussions going on between the two Kurdish leaders saying they would demand one of the two top offices. We’re talking to Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper. He is speaking to us from Baghdad where the elections have just concluded.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Fisk of the London Independent, long-term Middle East correspondent, now back in Baghdad, covering the elections. This latest report on the possibility of perhaps a prime minister or president being Kurdish. Robert Fisk.

ROBERT FISK: Well, if you hear the noise in the background, you’ll excuse me, there are some of your helicopters passing over here. I don’t think it’s an issue whether the Kurdish — a Kurd may be a prime minister or president. That’s always possible. The issue is what is going to be the American involvement in providing Iraq with its next interim government. Again, I repeat this election was for a national assembly to write a constitution, which will have to be approved by a referendum, which in December there would then have to be another election for a real quote-unquote government. The issue here you see is this: In the aftermath of these elections and we don’t know the results and won’t know them for days to come, it is quite possible that the administration here, which, of course, is effectively in the hands of the United States and here Ambassador Negroponte will be involved, will try to form a government coalition. This would include certain leading Shiite politicians who won seats in yesterday’s election. It would include some Sunnis who were running, in some cases, on Shia tickets. This was a list system, proportional representation election, and of course, it would undoubtedly include some Kurds. Now, it would look very nice and democratic and free if a coalition government could include Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds. And that I’m sure is what the Americans would like to see. But then the largest Shiite alliance, which scored seats in the election, could turn out to be the official opposition and Shiites would then say, well, it is very nice to have this lovely coalition of all our ethnic groups. But we won the election. We are 60% of the people and now we’re in a coalition where we don’t have the majority of power and our largest party is confined to being the opposition in parliament. And that, at the moment, is the biggest danger, that we’re going to see such administrative refining of the results that we will produce and westernize infinitely fair coalition government comprising Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds, but which will not represent the overall election results, which must show a Shiite majority. I mean there are actually members of the largest alliance of Shiite groups saying now that they are certain they’ve got more than 50% of the vote, which was cast yesterday. Now if that’s the case, the Shiites will say, well hold on a second, we’re the majority, we got the most votes, we got the greatest number of seats and you are making us part of a coalition and the biggest party of the opposition in parliament and that, of course, would then be betrayal just as it would be if they suddenly signed that the American and British and other foreign forces, they are not going to leave.

So, we eventually — I mean we set up an enormous amount of expectations for this election. And I have got to admit, I have to admit having seen it and been there and walked with people to the polling stations in Baghdad, that the Shiites who wanted to vote did so unanimously and with great courage. Are they now going to be portrayed by the slippery process of coalitioning a government, which will suit the West, which will, of course, include Kurds and then of course must include some Sunnis as well or are they going to be effectively told, ok, the Shiites now have what you people in America like to call empowerment. This is now effectively a Shiite republic, not an Islamic republic, but this country is a Shiite country, which it is, of course, in real life. Will the election result, will the parliament, will the next government actually reflect the reality on the ground? If it does, then we are moving if it doesn’t, then it would be better that the elections would not be held.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Baghdad on this day after the Iraqi elections. Robert Fisk, long time Middle East correspondent for the Independent newspaper in Britain.

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