Ira Chernus  



While we indulge in our orgy of national self-righteousness about purifying the prisons, other things are afoot in Iraq that may prove even more important. Knight-Ridder journalist Hannah Allam has just reported a new poll. "A majority of Iraqis said they'd feel safer if the U.S. military withdrew immediately." Buried in Allam’s story there may be even bigger news:

"About 2,000 of Iraq's top scholars and activists gathered in Baghdad [on May 8] to form an anti-American political bloc. A highly diverse crowd of Islamists, Christians, secular nationalists, Baathists and communists listened as speakers demanded an immediate withdrawal of American forces and the dismantling of the Governing Council, whose members rode into Iraq ‘on American tanks.’ Even the prospect of civil war sounded better to them than a prolonged occupation. ‘We'd like the Americans to go even if that means a sectarian war,’ Ahmed al Baghdadi, a Shiite cleric, told the cheering crowd. ‘It would be a war among our boys and old guys like us would be able to settle it quickly.’

It’s just one little paragraph in one little news story. No other media bothered to cover it, as far as Google News can tell. But it should be big news. The U.S. has ten times the population of Iraq. Suppose ten times 2,000 top American scholars and activists filled Madison Square Garden to form a new political bloc. That sure would be newsworthy here.

Google News did tell me something about "Ahmed al Baghdadi, a Shiite cleric." Unless there are two Iraqi political leaders named Sheik Ahmed al Baghdadi, It seems this man is deeply involved in the process of preparing Iraq’s constitution. In March, according to, he headed a delegation of the Preparatory Board for the Iraqi Constitutional Congress, which met with Syrian President al-Assad. "Sheikh Baghdadi praised Syria's national positions and her offers to the Iraqi people to end its anguish. He clarified to journalists that the congress was working to end the occupation in Iraq, to formulate a national government representing spectrums of the Iraqis and to restore Iraq to its natural situation."

What’s going on here? Since our journalists are too busy to tell us, we have to try to put the fragmentary pieces together and create a picture for ourselves. Sheik al Baghdadi does not sound like a puppet of the U.S. occupation. He does sound like an independent leader who can help unify the factions in Iraq around a new constitution of their own devising.

Our media tell us that it can’t happen. The Iraqi factions can never unify themselves. Ever since Saddam was chased from power, mainstream U.S. journalists and pundits have assumed that Iraq, if left to itself, would dissolve into chaos. One way or another, the U.S. must teach the Iraqis how to govern themselves and bring order out of chaos. The journalists and pundits debate fiercely about the best way to do it. But they all agree that the Iraqis must be treated like little children, gently but firmly guided on the long road to maturity by kindly grown-up Americans.

Only occasionally do we hear an expert like Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, who says (in the May 9 New York Times) that Iraq has a strong nationalism, so the danger of the country fracturing when U.S. troops leave is exaggerated. When British journalist Robert Fiske suggested that the constant talk of "civil war" was coming from U.S. leaders, not from the Iraqis, he was ignored (as usual) by mainstream media here. Maybe that’s because Fiske pointed out the obvious: As long as Iraqi factions are fighting each other, they can’t unite to fight U.S. domination. So who benefits from a brewing Iraqi civil war and fears of civil war? Of course, the U.S.

The 2,000 Iraqi scholars and activists who gathered in Baghdad the other day certainly know that. They know that the best way to resist the occupation is to unite, organize, and perhaps get control of the constitution-writing process. The Iraqis who met last week at the Babylon Human Rights Organization in Hillah, a city near Baghdad, know the value of unity too. "All types of power were represented, political parties and scientists and religious men," one participant told journalist Aaron Glantz. "The main goal of the meeting," Glantz explained, "was how to confront the American occupation without resorting to violence. It was a regular topic of discussion at this organization, which was well known to American officials."

Yet fifteen U.S. soldiers broke into that Human Rights meeting and executed two Shi’ite sheikhs in cold blood. A number of mainstream news stories mentioned, just in passing, that two Iraqis were killed in Hillah. If Glantz had not been there reporting for Democracy Now, we wouldn’t know anything about what really happened.

We will probably never know why it happened. Once again, we can only guess by putting stray pieces together. Here’s a piece that strayed into view as I was writing this column: a New York Times article about U.S. troops destroying Muqtada al Sadr’s Baghdad headquarters—accompanied by a photo of workers putting the finishes touches on the rebuilt building. Why destroy a building that will be rebuilt the very next day? The attack obviously had no practical effect. It was a symbolic gesture.

Symbolic of what? The relentless U.S. attack on Sadr’s faction, which only serves to stir up Iraqi resentment and strengthens Sadr’s appeal. Why do that? Let’s look at another piece of the puzzle.

Last summer and fall a spate of mainstream news reports explained that U.S. tacticians were studying the way Israeli troops fight in Palestinian cities. As I wrote back then: "The U.S. is imitating Israel not only in the way it makes war, but in the way it fails to make peace. The Israeli model is simple. When the other sides signals that they are ready for a compromise peace, ignore them and ratchet up the military force. The result is predictable. The other side ratchets up their force too."

But there is more to the Israeli model. They use their force in ways that are sure to inflame the Palestinian public and drive it to support more extreme movements. The assassinations of the two Hamas leaders are just the most recent and obvious examples of a long-standing policy. The Israeli government funded and largely created Hamas to begin with. The point was to create opposition to Yassir Arafat, to make sure he could not control Palestinian political life. It’s the old strategy of divide and conquer.

The U.S. attacks on Shi’ite leaders and holy cities are as sure to stir anger as the Israeli assassinations of the Hamas leaders. They are as sure to build up Sadr’s faction as the Israeli acts are to strengthen Hamas. Just like his headquarters building in the photo, they tear him down only to build him up again. Shi’ite leaders who dismissed Sadr last year must now take him very seriously.

That may well be the ultimate goal of U.S. strategy. Let no indigenous Iraqi leader rise to undisputed power. Let no coalitions form that might unite around a single leader. Keep many strong leaders fighting against each other.

Perhaps that’s because the U.S. officials already have their own Iraqis to put in power. But to do it, they must control the process of writing the constitution. Edward Lazarus, writing in, explains that there are "two main Iraqi rivals negotiating over the Constitution's content, Faisal Istrabadi and Salem Chalabi. Istrabadi is a medical malpractice lawyer from Indiana. Chalabi is the nephew of Ahmed Chalabi -- the former exile group leader whose suspect advice turns out to have misled the Bush administration at just about every turn. Istrabadi's patron is Adnan Pachachi, who is likely to become the new Iraq's first president; Chalabi's, unsurprisingly, is Ahmed Chalabi, who is likely to become the new Iraq's first prime minister. No wonder, then, that Salem Chalabi pushes for a weak presidency and strong prime minister's role: His patron (and uncle) is slated for the prime ministership, so of course he'd like that position to be as powerful -- and the presidency's powers as modest -- as possible." Istrabadi, of course, wants a strong president and a weak prime minister.

Neither the Astrabadi-Pachachi faction nor the Chalaba faction has any real support among the Iraqi people. But both are willing to dance to the U.S. tune. So they have real support among the U.S. political and corporate elite who are busy building "the new [pro-American, pro-Israeli, unrestricted free market] Iraq." The U.S. must prevent any coalition of forces that might unite to promote their own idea of a constitution, one that might limit the powers of both Pachachi and Chalabi.

The 2,000 Iraqis who gathered the other day could be the start of just such a coalition. The U.S. media did not take note of the meeting. But you can be sure the U.S. authorities in Iraq did. If I were Sheik Ahmed al Baghdadi, and I didn’t have good strong bodyguards already, I’d go out and hire some today.