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Experts See Little Hope for Emergence of Democracy in Iraq
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
By Pat and Samir Twair
April 2006

PROSPECTS for democracy emerging in Iraq are dim, if not nil, according to Middle East experts Juan Cole and Larry Diamond. The two spoke at a Jan. 23 symposium co-sponsored by the Center for Near East Theory and Comparative Study and the Near East Center of the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Once the U.S. occupation started, the possibility for democracy ended," stated Diamond, a professor of political science at Stanford University.

"If George W. Bush and his advisers had consulted experts before the invasion," he added, "they would have been told it was a seminal mistake to enter Iraq with the model of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's occupation of Japan."

Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan and president-elect of the prestigious Middle East Studies Association, discussed the opposing views of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

Sistani's vision was for a parliamentarian democracy, Cole noted, with clerics remaining in their seminaries from where they could issue fatwas.

"This would differ from the Iranian model," he explained, "because in Iraq, clerics would not be in control and would only exercise influence by their legal rulings."

Whereas Sistani called for popular sovereignty, continued Cole, Bremer wanted to rule Iraq. The American proconsul looked up pro-U.S. Iraqi notables in Iraq's 18 provinces to head caucus-based elections.

"No one understood the word caucus, there is no equivalent word in Arabic," Cole pointed out. "Soon there was talk of bringing in the United Nations as the mid-wife of a new Iraq."

Bremer was offended by suggestions of U.N. involvement. Sistani issued a fatwa stating that a legitimate government is derived from the will of the people and that Bremer's fancy oligarchy was not a representative government.

When national elections were postponed for seven months, Muqtada Sadr emerged from the Shi'i slums and demanded an immediate U.S. withdrawal. Initially, Cole noted, Washington asked Spanish forces to capture Sadr, Cole noted.

"Madrid replied that ‘major turbulence would ensue' if Sadr were to be kidnapped," he told the audience. "So the U.S. decided to do it and launched an uprising that engulfed the entire south, cutting all American supply and communication lines in the region.

"Amidst the chaos, the U.S. appointed an old time, terrorist Iraqi CIA operative, Iyad Alawi, as prime minister to shepherd the country into democracy," Cole said. "Alawi's inauguration ceremony was set for June 30, 2004. Bremer sneaked out of Baghdad June 28."

The U.S. destruction of Fallujah, a city of 250,000 followed. The Nov. 15 referendum vote was rejected by the Sunnis, leaving the Kurds and Shi'i in control. Oddly enough, Cole noted, Washington seems to think it a good idea that Sunni fundamentalists who have connections with al-Qaeda participated in the elections of Dec. 15.

Cole predicted a lengthy guerrilla conflict that could turn into civil war and eventually lead to Saudi and Iranian involvement. "A regional war would halt oil supplies from the Gulf," he said "Or maybe we will get a 1980s Lebanese model of warring factions."          

Diamond, who was appointed by Condoleezza Rice to serve as an adviser to the CPA in early 2004, offered a slightly less cataclysmic view.

"Democracy isn't possible in Iraq in the next few years," he acknowledged, "but maybe we can avoid a civil war. Stabilization is the most important goal. This can be achieved by winding down the Sunni insurgency."

Diamond proposed having some elements of democracy in which power and petroleum wealth are shared among the Shi'i, Sunnis and Kurds—which means a revision of the Constitution put together Aug. 15.

"It was a mistake for the U.S. to insist the Constitution be completed by Aug. 15," he opined. "A six-month postponement would have allowed the three to continue the bargaining process. This was blocked by Bush.

"There are two ayatollahs—one in Najaf, the other in the White House," added the author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (Henry Holt & Co., 2005).

There can be no consensus, he warned, so long as the Sunnis see Iraqi Kurdistan and the Shi'i region in control of 80 percent of the country's oil and gas revenues. The recent elections demonstrated severe polarization along sectarian and religious identities, Diamond noted, with 70 percent of the Shi'i votes going to the United Iraqi Alliance and 90 percent of Kurds going to their parties.

Dismissing claims that Kurdistan is an island of democracy in Iraq, Diamond added that Al-Sadr proponents are forming an abusive mini-theocracy in the Shi'i slums, a legacy of Bush that cannot be reversed. Shortages of water and electricity heighten impatience with the American occupation.

As for the insurgency, which is costing thousands of Iraqi deaths monthly, Diamond argued that the only means to wind down the slide into war lordism is to begin talks with the insurgency.

"The insurgency is so fragmented, it will take months of mapping to distinguish who each group is," he said. "Intensive mediation by the U.N., the Arab League and the Iranians must be conducted in order to work out a solution."

The second annual Jewish/Muslim Dialogue of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics in Malibu convened Jan. 22 in the Islamic Center of Southern California

A highlight of the event was the showing of a segment from "Encounter Point," a documentary on Jewish and Palestinian victims of violence who are making an effort to come together.

The film's director, Ronit Avni, founder and director of Just Vision, introduced the documentary which follows ordinary Palestinians and Jews over 16 months in all parts of Israel and Palestine.

The segment showed a Palestinian family, whose daughter had been killed by an Israeli soldier, and Jewish parents, whose daughter died in a suicide bombing, exchange their thoughts at a peace forum. It also focused on the efforts of Jewish peace activists futilely trying to get through checkpoints to greet their Palestinian counterparts in Tulkarm.

Avni responded to criticisms by Jews and Muslims by saying their comments demonstrate that her film has shown both sides' grievances equally.

"How do I identify with my faith tradition?" was the question addressed in the dialogue session, which broke into groups focusing on ritual, prayer, holidays, social action and cultural activities.

Information on the Wallenberg Institute is available at and on Just Vision and the documentary at
Forum on Torture and Detention

"Torture and Detention" speakers (l-r) Mohammed Mirmehdi, Hector Aristizabal, Stephen Rohde, Mohsen, Mostafa and Mojtaba Mirmehdi (Staff Photo S. Twair).

The Los Angeles Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace selected "Torture and Detentions: The Struggle for Human Rights and Civil Liberties Since 9/11" as the theme of its bi-monthly forum. Stephen Rohde, a former president of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union, moderated the Feb. 13 program in the SGI-Buddhist Friendship Center.

Rohde, a constitutional attorney, noted that civil liberties belong to the people, who must accept the challenge to tell the government they won't take any more erosion of their liberties.

Notting that George W. Bush often spoke about Saddam Hussain's use of torture, Rohde stressed that, today, when CIA torture techniques don't do the trick, the U.S. sends prisoners to countries whose laws do not ban extreme torture methods.

The author of American Words of Freedom and Freedom of Assembly questioned the standards of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who referred to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint and obsolete."

Featured speakers were Mohsen, Mostafa, Mojtaba and Mohammad Mirmehdi, who hold the dubious distinction of being the longest incarcerated detainees after 9/11 (see July 2005 Washington Report, p. 44). The Iranian brothers were released March 16, 2005 after 41 months of detention.

"When you lose hope, good things happen," stated Mohsen, who confessed that it was only when they felt they had nothing to lose that the brothers contacted the media. Then, under pressure from reporters' inquiries, the prison and court systems changed their tunes.

Another speaker was Hector Aristizabal, who was born in Medellin, Colombia, and underwent torture from paramilitary groups who killed his brother.

"In South America, most people who are tortured don't survive, they are killed at the end of their agony," stated the actor, who works as a licensed psychologist with torture survivors, gang members and prisoners. He also co-founded the Los Angeles Center for Theater of the Oppressed, and last year conducted workshops in Ramallah between rabbinical students and Palestinians.

Aristizabal charged it is the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA, where techniques of torture are taught to the Colombian military. Under pressure from Congress, the Department of Defense changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, he said, but it continues to train soldiers and police who also learn torture methods at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.

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