The alienation of Iraq

Across the Islamic World there is despair among moderate Muslims. Looking closely at the three primary justifications used by the US administration for the war in Iraq—weapons of mass destruction, the need for regime change and the promise of democracy—it is not difficult to see why.

America’s obsession with weapons of mass destruction has always left many in the Middle East a little bewildered. In the Iraqi context, many of the weapons that were believed to form part of Saddam Hussein’s formidable arsenal came from American and European sources. It has been said before, but cannot be said enough, that when the Iraqi Government was using chemical weapons against the Kurds of northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a friend of America. In the 1980s, the now-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Iraq and shook hands with Saddam Hussein. At the time, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were indispensable to America, enabling it to use a proxy in the war against Iran. When chemical weapons were used extensively against Iranian forces with massive casualties, America remained silent.

For President George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld to say that these weapons posed a fundamental threat to Iraq’s neighbours and to the safety of the people of the region is decades too late. When the Iraqi leader had the inclination to use them there was no coalition of the willing. In the aftermath of the most recent war, when not a single weapon of mass destruction has been found but many have been used against the Iraqi people, it is scarcely surprising that Iraqis don’t rejoice when the new American administrators of Iraq tell them that they have been liberated. After all, the Iraqi people suffered at the hands of Saddam’s weapons for almost 25 years and no-one acted to save them.

America’s assurances that Iraq’s weapons were the main legal basis for war are also not believed in a region where the only nuclear power—Israel—is a close ally of Washington.

It is true that Iraqis interviewed by Western journalists have largely supported America’s true aim of regime-change. Saddam Hussein’s government was one of the most brutal dictatorships in modern history. To escape persecution, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled their homeland as refugees. Millions more remained behind, unable to leave.

In the late 1990s, I represented numerous asylum seekers from Iraq, each one bearing stories of tragedy and irreparable loss. Tariq’s brother was arrested when Iraq’s feared Mukhabarat came looking for Tariq. He was never heard from again. His farm was burned to the ground and his property confiscated. Tariq fled the country and later learned that his elderly father had been tortured for two unrelenting weeks in an attempt to extract details of his son’s whereabouts. Tariq’s father died soon after his release.

Yusuf was in his eighties when he was picked up by the Mukhabarat. He was never told of his crime and he too was tortured, in this case for three weeks. When he was released, he was a broken man and retreated within himself rather than burden his family with the indignities to which he had been subjected. Somehow he made it to Australia with his daughter, only to die on the morning he was granted refugee status without ever knowing that his application had been approved.

From illiterate farmers to doctors and lawyers, from Sunnis and Shi’as to Christians, it made no difference in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. All were forced to flee, carrying to Western countries desperate pleas for the world to take notice, to understand what was happening inside Iraq. Instead they were treated as a threat to the national security of nations like Australia. I sat in interviews with Iraqi asylum seekers who were accused of lying to support their case. One old man died the week after the interview, having become deeply depressed and convinced that he was about to be forcibly returned to Iraq.

Another asylum seeker whom we represented began convulsing under a barrage of hostile questioning and accusations. He told us later that the experience reinforced memories of interrogation in Iraq. When I raised objections at a Department of Immigration liaison meeting, a senior representative of Compliance—the section of the department responsible for immigration detention and policing illegal immigration—said for all to hear, ‘If I had a detainee who started to convulse, I would know that I had them right where I wanted them’.

And yet countries like Australia who imprisoned Iraqi asylum seekers as if they were criminals and accused them of lying, thought nothing of using the flagrant and widespread human rights abuses taking place inside Iraq as a justification for war.

In the context of such a duplicitous history, Iraqis and the wider Islamic world find it difficult to believe that regime-change was pursued for the interests of the Iraqi people.

After the initial euphoria of Saddam’s demise, American forces were bewildered to learn that they were seen not as liberators but as an occupying power. As occupiers, the ‘coalition’ forces failed to provide basic security despite highly intrusive house-to-house searches, allowed Iraq’s hospitals and ancient treasures to be looted while the oil ministry remained unscathed, and proved incapable of restoring universal power and water supplies. As a consequence, America left itself open to the accusation that in the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, the needs of the Iraqi people were secondary to prosecuting the ‘war on terror’.

It is indeed a singular ‘achievement’ of the new administration in Iraq that, despite the climate of fear under which Iraqis lived for decades, security for ordinary Iraqis is said to be worse than under Saddam. In truth, regime-change has brought Iraqis few benefits.

But most significantly of all, many in the region simply do not believe that America wants a democratic Iraq. Instead, America’s hesitantly stated intention to use Iraq as a catalyst for democratic change elicits a deep-seated cynicism among many Muslims.

Memories are still fresh of Western support for the democratisation process in Algeria in the early 1990s. In the first multi-party elections in the country since 1962, the fundamentalist National Salvation Front won a landslide majority of 81 per cent in the first round of voting in June 1990, which took place under conditions described as free and fair by international observers. The second round was never held and mass arrests of Islamic activists began. Western governments were silent about the cancelled elections and supported the incumbent government out of fear that an Islamic administration elected by the people would set a dangerous precedent. The country slid into a destructive civil war from which Algeria has still to fully emerge. Tens of thousands of Algerians have lost their lives and continue to do so.

Or the people of the region point to Israel, America’s best friend and long claimed to be the only democratic government in the region. In reality, Israeli electoral laws deny voting rights to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, Israel and the US refuse to engage with Yasser Arafat, a man who for all of his faults was democratically elected as head of the Palestinian Authority. Mr Arafat is accused of supporting terrorism, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon emerges unscathed from his policies of extrajudicial killings, the building of illegal settlements on Arab land and economic blockades which have devastated the Palestinian economy. In peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the most difficult issues is the return or otherwise of Palestinian refugees. Sharon knows that if Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel, the demographic and electoral map of the country would be transformed.

In Kuwait, America and its allies went to war to restore to power a dynastic government of oil-rich men who were anything but democratically elected. Across Iraq’s long border to the east, the United States Government has chosen to label Iran as part of its ‘Axis of Evil’ and threatened it with retaliation for its alleged support for terrorism. This is instead of supporting the forces of reform, forces which include the democratically elected President Khatami.

And democracy in Iraq? Few believe that it will happen, in large part because it is unlikely that a pro-American government would be elected. To confirm as much and in an echo of 1990 Algeria, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has categorically stated that there will be no Shi’a theocracy in a country with a 60 per cent Shi’a population.

The dilemma for the American administration is that the longer its inept occupation of Iraq continues, and the longer it insists that it has brought freedom to Iraq when civil society is crumbling, the more likely it is that the Iraqi people will elect just such a government as a statement that they will decide the terms of their own liberation.

When the American and Australian governments talk of Iraq’s new freedoms, Iraqis feel that it looks more like occupation and insecurity. Similarly, when the word democracy is mentioned, they know from the region’s history that the only democracy they will be allowed is one where the American government retains the casting vote.

It is essential to understand the profound sense of alienation that this causes among Muslims. By marching into the lands of Islam with the ‘liberating’ tread of foreign army boots, Western armies are watering the roots of the next terrorist outrage, the next government that is willing to embody the anger of the people of the region. Unlike the present governments in Iraq or across the region, such a government would truly be the representative of its people, one that has sufficient legitimacy to demand that the West cease its violations of Islamic lands.

Whether this is expressed at the ballot box in a newly democratised Middle East or in the defiant fury of al Qaeda terrorism, the consequences will transform the world in a way that we can scarcely imagine.  

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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