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Sunday's election is meagre payback for reducing Iraq to utter chaos

Simon Jenkins

ELECTION IS the sacrament of a modern state. For a split second in the intimacy of a polling booth, sovereignty descends from potentate to person. A holy cross is entered on a piece of paper and power is purified. A citizen walks out into the light a little taller and more saintly. Sunday’s pictures of Shia and Kurdish Iraqis lining up to vote were heartwarming. Any election, however imperfect, is better than none. An election demands organisation on the part of a regime and participation on the part of its subjects. They must stand up to be counted. Power pays brief homage to population.

The Iraq election should and could have been held within six months of the invasion in 2003, with the Sunnis not yet alienated by American bombing and beating. It would have made a world of difference. Even now, the vote was held against the advice of the Pentagon that it was “too soon” and at the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The latter was desperate to legitimise majority Shia control over Iraq and hold at bay rival Shia groups. He also needs to retain Kurdish assent to his emerging dominance over the new Iraq, assent that may not last long.

That the elections were held, and with an impressive turnout, is plainly a credit item on the balance sheet of the invasion. Since the vote plainly depended on Saddam Hussein having been toppled, it has given the barnyard lobby a rare chance to crow, even more than when it declared “mission accomplished” in May 2003. Of course elections, however belated, are welcome. In Iraq they must be a respite from the humiliation of occupation and the horror of anarchy.

Any election is a ray of sunlight. So, some Iraqis might say, would be a tap that flows, a light that works and a hospital where staff are not kidnapped daily on the way to work.

I will never decry the sanctity of elections, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. History is awash in dictators and one-party rulers born of the franchise. Wars are justified not by an election but by the totality of their aftermaths. Many countries have toppled undemocratic regimes without an American invasion, from Iran to Russia to South Africa and, most recently, Ukraine. Where America has intervened — in Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan — the outcome has only rarely been democracy. Iraq’s election — the sole surviving justification for the invasion — is remarkable chiefly for the enormity of the cost in money and human life. Britain has devoted to it four times what it has given the rest of the world in aid.

The neocon bragging over a “beacon of democracy” now being raised over the Muslim world is absurd. There were active, contested elections in Palestine in 1996, Egypt in 2000, Iran in 2001 and Pakistan in 2002. Just as Washington and London supported Saddam (and sold him ghastly weapons) when it suited them, so they support elections only when convenient. America refused to acknowledge Yassir Arafat as a democrat or condemn General Musharraf as a dictator. It continues to favour such undemocratic rulers as Colonel Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Karimov of Uzbekistan. The trumpet of democracy sounds an uncertain note whenever offered for export.

The soil in which Iraqi democracy must now take root could hardly be less fertile. Even Zimbabwe’s election monitors did not have to flee to a foreign country for fear of their lives. The poll is already shrouded in the new “PC”, pious correctness. It should, must, ought, will hopefully prove the building block of a more secure nation. That will happen “if and only if” the people of Iraq do what they are told, refrain from violence and love one another. The story is the old one. We are right to invade a sovereign state “if” its people get the message. If they do not, that is their fault, not ours. The new global morality is not just relative, it is conditional. Iraq is suffering an epidemic of subjunctivitis.

The reality is that the place is the most anarchic and dangerous country on Earth, after two years of Anglo-American rule. The pro-war lobby would do well to recognise this if they are to see clearly what to do next. For the election to be no more than a fond memory — like the much-boasted “sovereignty transfer” last June — the mullahs of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution and their allies must do a deal with Iyad Allawi’s bunker administration in Baghdad. The now dormant militias must be fused into a proper internal security force. Some of the billions of Iraq’s oil dollars now being stolen by American companies (see last night’s astonishing BBC File on 4) must go to Iraqis.

Baghdad must in turn accommodate the sheikhs and warlords of the Sunni Triangle. They alone might quell al-Zarqawi’s gunmen, as Ayatollah al-Sistani quelled the al-Sadr bandits last year. Americans simply have not the skills for this job. The insurgency must be quashed by Iraqis alone, preferably with money. And this must be done before the nightmare struggle begins over the contested Arab-Kurd areas of Kirkuk to the north. Do the Pentagon and the Foreign Office really mean to referee that lethal contest?

Nothing would raise the stock of the new regime more than to insist on the early withdrawal of American and British forces. The nervous grandees in the green zone may crave their American bodyguards and helicopters, but as long as the regime is seen as the puppet of an occupying power, it will be target practice for internal dissent. The one thing on which every Iraqi seems to agree is that the presence of foreign troops exacerbates violence. Neither is the occupation delivering on its promises. Power cuts are increasing in Baghdad. The streets are less safe and women more repressed. Fallujah has not been rebuilt as promised.

Most of the effort of occupation goes on its own protection. Fourteen Saddam-sized American bases are rising in the desert. They are offensive to Iraqis and a standing invitation to insurgent attack. How they can be seen as hastening the security and stability of Iraq is a mystery. As long as every supply convoy is a target, every motorway a bomb alley and every police station a no-go area, normality cannot even begin to return.

I believe the challenge here is not military but intellectual, even racial. Nobody doubts that US and British forces can stay in Iraq as long as they like, killing and being killed. We can argue all night over “what we want to see in Baghdad” and with the best of intentions. But we seem unable to query the subject of that verb. We cannot believe that a Western presence anywhere in the world might be illegitimate and counterproductive. We cannot believe that the route to stability in Iraq might begin only when we go home (as it did in Lebanon).

The Kipling syndrome runs deep, that since the West can do what it likes where it likes it must be right to do it. The strategy in Iraq is akin to trench warfare, one more push, one more year, one more Sunni city flattened, one more well-meaning British diplomat spouting pious correctness. “Work him hard!” the cry goes up, and Johnny Arab will come to his senses and behave like a white man. “For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple-bells they say: ‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay’.”

What Saddam did or did not do — often with our backing — cannot justify what the West does when it has that same power. America and Britain have reduced Iraq to chaos, for which Sunday’s election is a significant but meagre compensation. But those now elected will acquire real authority only if they are not tainted as puppets of a foreign occupation. The Iraqis will rebuild their wrecked country according to their own lights. We have already shown that we cannot do it for them. They will start, however messily, the sooner we leave.

At present there is only one country which has a coherent strategy for Iraq. That country is Iran. Is that to be our legacy?