March 24, 2004
By Naomi Klein in Baghdad
In London, they unfurled a protest sign on Big Ben, in Rome a million demonstrators filled the streets. Here in Iraq, there were no such spectacular markings of the one-year anniversary of the invasion - a sign, the BBC speculated, that Iraqis are generally "pleased" with the progress of their liberation.
Yet driving around Baghdad on Saturday, the eerie quiet felt more like a sign that symbolic anniversaries are an unaffordable luxury when the war they are supposed to be marking is still being waged. Several demos were planned for Saturday in Baghdad but cancelled at the last minute - a response to three days of rapid-fire attacks on Iraqi and foreign civilians.
On Friday, an anti-occupation march designed as a show of unity between Sunni and Shia Muslims was much smaller than organisers hoped, and no wonder: less than three weeks ago, 70 people were killed in an horrific attack on the same Shia mosque where demonstrators were meant to gather. US occupation chief Paul Bremer chose the day of the planned protests to predict that more such "major attacks" were likely "when you have masses of Shia together". Those who dared to show up glanced around nervously, while armed men lined the streets and rooftops.
Just two months ago, the mood here was distinctly less tentative. In January, more than 100,000 Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad and Basra to reject the US plan to appoint an interim government through a complicated system of regional caucuses, and to demand direct elections. Under intense pressure, Bremer was forced to scrap the caucus plan. For a brief moment, it looked as if Bush's empty talk of bringing democracy to Iraq might just become a reality - because Iraqis seemed determined to seize that power despite their occupiers' best efforts.
Now, after a month of terror and steady assertions from "experts" that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, much of that boldness has retreated. Which is precisely why they call it terrorism: it sends people from the streets into their homes, replacing courage with fear, self-reliance with dependency.
There are rare exceptions, such as the recent Spanish elections, when populations seem to collectively decide to respond to horror with defiance. But more often, terror simply terrorises.
So who benefits most from the spreading fear in Iraq? According to Bush, the winners are faceless evil-doers bent on undermining Iraq's future democracy. And according to Bremer, this means that the attacks will continue as the June 30 handover approaches.
But this is not the word on the streets here. Twenty minutes after the bombing of the Mount Lebanon hotel last Wednesday, the rumours began to fly: it was the US, the CIA, the British ... If these conspiracy theories have traction, maybe it's because the occupying forces have so brazenly taken advantage of the attacks to do precisely what they accuse foreign terrorists of doing: interfering with the prospect of genuine democracy in Iraq.
When it was only occupation targets getting hit by the resistance, it made the occupation seem out of control, bolstering the argument that the US should pull out and hand over power to Iraqis or a more neutral international force. But now that the targets have expanded to include Iraqi civilians, as well as foreign aid workers and journalists, the White House is attempting to make Iraqis seem riven with religious and ethnic hatreds, incapable of governing themselves.
With doubt successfully cast on the prospects for democracy, and terror attacks minimising pro-democracy protests, Bremer is on the verge of accomplishing what seemed impossible two months ago: installing an interim government that is fully controlled by the US.
It now looks almost certain that Iraq's first "sovereign" government will be created by a process even less democratic than the abandoned caucus system: the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council will simply be expanded in size. This body is so discredited here that it is called the "governed council". Bremer has also managed to use the terror attacks to make sure that Iraq's next government will be able to do nothing but implement his orders.
After the March 2 attacks on Shia, members of the governing council came under pressure to sign an interim constitution as a show of national unity and stability, despite previously strong reservations.
The document, signed two weeks ago, states: "The laws, regulations, orders, and directives issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority ... shall remain in force." These laws include Bremer's Order 39, which drastically changes Iraq's previous constitution to allow foreign companies to own 100% of Iraqi assets (except in natural resources), and to take 100% of their profits out of the country, paving the way for massive privatisations.
But defying Bremer's orders won't be an option after the "handover". The interim constitution clearly states that the only way these laws can be changed is by a three-quarters vote "by the Iraqi Transitional Government". According to the same constitution, that body won't exist until elections are held in early 2005.
In other words, on June 30, the occupation won't end, it will simply be outsourced to a group of hand-picked Iraqi politicians with no democratic mandate or sovereign power. With its new Iraqi face, the government will be free from the ugly perception that Iraq's national assets are being auctioned off by foreigners - and unencumbered by input from Iraqi voters who might have ideas of their own.
At the Economic Forum on Iraq conference held last week, Nassir al-Jadarji, a member of the governing council, assured potential investors that the deals made by these mandate-less politicians will be passed on to Iraq's future elected leaders. "Our policies toward investments will not change in any form," he said. Some wonder why any company would even want to buy up pieces of a country as chaotic and dangerous as Iraq. Perhaps the real question should be: with the Iraqi people living amid so much chaos and danger, who is going to stop them?
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