The last stand

As Iraqis prepare to elect a permanent general assembly, a defiant Saddam Hussein challenges the legitimacy of the new Iraq. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  December 11, 2005

|~|Saddam-H-200.jpg|~|Courtroom drama: Flanked by his half brother and co-defendants, a defiant Saddam Hussein challenges the authority of the court.|~|It was a sight to behold. A defiant Saddam Hussein, flanked by his half brother and a clique of officers, made a mockery of a trial that was supposed to heal the wounds of a war torn country and people, traumatised by 30 years of Ba’thist rule. The unruly and rowdy scenes saweverything from the deposed Iraq leader complaining about not having a pen and paper, lashing out at witnesses that took the stand and scolding the presiding judge in the case. “I am not afraid of being executed!” screamed Saddam, adding along with Barzan Al-Tikriti, his half brother and other defendants. “Long live Iraq, long live the Arab state…long live democracy.” “I’ve served this country for 30 years,” Saddam then told the judge. He added: “I’m defending you. I’m defending Iraq. No post in the state deserves to be surrendered to the Americans.” The pinnacle in the drama, though, came when the enraged former dictator spat out at the judge: "I will not return. I will not come to an unjust court! Go to hell!" To many Iraqis, footage of the trial on their television sets was ironic as much as it was bittersweet. Watching Saddam and his co-defendants admonishing the judge and requesting a “fair” trial and “the right to speak”— they were witnessing the very demands and grievances they had aired throughout his rule. But the spectacle of Saddam’s lawyers, who now include former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, walking out of the courtroom, coupled with the inability of the chief judge to maintain decorum, also gave a boost of confidence to some. Many in Iraq have questioned the legitimacy of the trial and doubted the testimony of witnesses they believe to be dubious. Last week, crowds chanted in support of the deposed president in the streets of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam. Still, this pocket of support, largely among the Sunni population of Iraq — a minority that included Saddam’s strongest loyalists throughout his years in power — paled in comparison to the demonstrations of the Shiites, the Kurds and others who have called for the execution of the ex-president. Saddam Hussein’s regime cruelly repressed the country’s Shiites — which account for 60% of the Iraq’s population — and mercilessly killed thousands of Kurds in the 1980s with mustard gas. The demise of the Ba’thist regime ignited an unquenchable thirst among the Kurds, which account for 25% of the country’s population, to finally realise their independence — a fundamental point they made in the constitution ratified last October. But their newly found freedom has also accentuated the fervour of Shiites who have succeeded in establishing Islam as the national religion and a basic foundation for the country’s laws. Ostensibly, the referendum and subsequent ratification of the constitution has also highlighted the politically polarised fabric of the country. The Arab Sunni population shunned the January elections and rejected the constitution (one that serves the interests of Kurds and Shiites more) while the Kurds and Shiites turned the political process to their advantage. There is a serious threat of sectarianism in Iraq as a result. Unlike, for instance, Lebanon — which houses 18 different communities and was ravaged by a 15 year civil war — the oil issue in Iraq will magnify this “to the extent that foreign powers, regional powers, neighbouring states may invade in order to secure their interests,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected think tank. But as Iraqis digest the footage of their ex-president and his co-defendants in court, with the bombs and unabated suicide attacks in the background, they are nonetheless engaged in a political process that culminates in general elections on December 15 to elect a permanent 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. Like the preceding events, these elections will entail a list system that will require voters to pick from a total of 228 party lists and 21 coalitions. But unlike the past, this round is likely to galvanise Iraqis from all backgrounds to take part as any abstentions will inevitably have a bearing on the decisions the assembly will take in the future. “Clearly, the boycott of the January 30 election by the vast majority of Sunni Arabs and the virtual absence of voting stations in Al-Anbar governate will not occur this time around,” says Wayne White, the former deputy director of the US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for Near East and a principal Iraq analyst. “In some predominantly Sunni Arab areas security will block the vote, but many, many more Sunni Arab voters will show up than did last January,” adds White. And, as the elections are not in any one particular district, the elections' mechanism is also likely to guarantee Sunni Arabs many seats. Hiltermann of the ICG agrees that the situation in Iraq is less stable than it was a year ago, but that at the same time, there is a significant change from the past with Sunni participation. He sounds a note of caution though: “These elections are still controlled by the same parties — most of which are former exile based parties. In that sense things haven’t changed a lot. We are not seeing a radical break from the past and we need to see that happening.” But the issue of security is also likely to play a factor in these elections as it has in preceding events. Insurgents that comprise Sunni Iraqis, Ba’thist supporters, foreign fighters and hard-line fanatics of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi have attacked polling stations in the past and intimidated voters. In addition to security fears, Sunni Arabs may also be reluctant to vote, according to Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit, “because of continued disbelief that their representatives will have a realistic prospect of influencing the formal political process in a way they would favour”. But whatever the turnout, the election of a national assembly is likely to have a significant impact on Iraqi politics in one form or another. “The determination to vote of the Shiite majority is likely to be replicated, while Kurds, mindful of the impact of the guaranteed representation of Sunni majority areas, are likely to vote in large numbers,” adds Partrick. If all goes well, Sunni Arabs could expect to receive 15% to 20% of the seats in the new assembly according to White. Although this would see them gain a substantially larger number of seats than they did in January, this number will fall far short of those secured by the Shiites and Kurds. “As a result, in the wake of the elections, there will be increased alienation from the political process on the part of the Sunni Arab ‘street.’ “This will be compounded by the likely failure of a still relatively weak Sunni Arab presence in the government to secure meaningful changes in the constitution they rejected in October once the debate over final revisions to the constitution is reopened,” explains White. But the Sunni dimension is only one facet of the entire political process. The Kurdish swing vote will determine a great deal of how things unfold. The Kurds, who are fed up with the disunited Shiite Alliance and were frustrated by the cumbersome process of the constitution, could choose to side with former prime minister Iyad Allawi because of his secular nature, and at the same time bring into the fold some of the Sunni parties. In such an eventuality, says Hiltermann of the ICG, an ethnically-influence alliance, but one that is much more non-sectarian than the government of the last few months, will emerge. “It is that government [of the past few months] that has widened the sectarian divisions that we have seen emerge and have contributed to the sectarian violence. If we have a continuation of that with a new Shiite led government then the country is gone,” warns Hiltermann. As the elections draw near, posturing by Ahmad Chalabi, who is running as part of the National Congress Coalition list that includes the monarchist Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy and some Sunnis, is becoming more visible. A long-time favourite of the hawks in the Bush administration, Chalabi has managed to come out on top time and again — disappointing those eager to write him off. “Chalabi has cleverly manoeuvred his way into the good graces of a surprising number of factions within Iraq’s complex Shiite Arab community and has cleverly continued to cultivate key Kurdish leaders,” explains White. “He will do better than Iyad Allawi, and even if this is not in the number of seats, it will be in the form of his endurance as a major deal-maker behind the scenes—inside the circle of power within the government. “The longer he is able to remain a major figure in Iraqi politics, he will damage the credibility of Iraqi governments in the eyes not only of Sunni Arabs inside Iraq, but also among other foreign governments, with the exception of Iran and, ironically, perhaps the US.” For his part, Iyad Allawi is capitalising on his secular background and — cunningly — on Shiites who have grown increasingly jaded with the religious fervour that has come to characterise the present government of Ibrahim Jaafari. But as exemplified by the hundreds of shoes hurled at him in Najaf last week, Allawi realizes his mission may not be so cut and dry. “Allawi has many things against him. He is a CIA man, an autocrat, his government last year was terribly corrupt, authorised the American assault on Fallujah and this lost him a lot of support among the Sunnis,” explains Hiltermann of the Crisis Group. “The question is if he is going to be able to overcome these points against him to get the numbers to offset the plurality that the Shiites are going to get simply because they have the demographic majority?” There are, of course, other questions as well. Like for instance whether or not secular Iraqis will rally behind him and will cast their votes by default with Allawi simply because they dislike the religious party? Moreover, there is little indication the successful assembly elections will be a panacea for much of the violence that mars daily life in Iraq and the rift among the various communities in the country. Many Sunnis still resent the constitution and, as Partrick of the EIU says, “changes and concessions within the currently US-overseen political process will as likely still be subject to violent challenge, a scenario that could include more discontent from sections of the Shiite Arab majority”. “The bottom line for Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgents, and conceivably for some Shiite factions on the ground, to foreswear the armed option is securing the removal of US-led coalition troops, or at least a clear and relatively short duration timetable for their departure,” he adds. Though there is mounting pressure domestically in the US and UK to withdraw from Iraq, both the American and British leaders have said they are not looking at withdrawing troops so long as Iraqis are unable to stand on their own feet. Instead, what is likely to happen in the aftermath of the assembly elections is a drawdown of foreign troops in 2006. “Withdrawal is going to be linked to the standing up of Iraqi security services being able to stand on their own. If the Americans withdraw before that then they will leave chaos in their wake and that will rebound on them,” says Hiltermann. In the meantime, the trial of Saddam Hussein two years since his capture on December 13 2003 in a spider hole, is unlikely to either assuage grievances of a disenchanted Sunni population or curtail a stubborn insurgency bent on spreading mayhem and bloodshed in the country. “For as long as the trial is public and allows Saddam a platform to talk about occupation, sovereignty and national dignity, subjects that concern Iraqis beyond the Sunni Arab minority that would be most sympathetic to his rhetoric, then the courtroom scenes will continues to backfire on the Iraqi authorities,” says Partrick of the EIU. He adds: “Saddam will not rally Shia Arabs and Kurds, and given the testimony of witnesses of the former regime’s practices in the Shia town of Dujail, and perhaps other towns as the trial unfolds, the trial will play a part in the ongoing consolidation of ethnic and sectarian division within the country; something that the election does not look likely to ease, at least in the short to medium term.”||**||

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