The Bush administration must really wish Colin Powell had never heard of Pottery Barn. The humiliated former secretary of state thought he was quoting the home furnishing chain’s store policy when he warned President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that “If you break it, you own it.” Now, with elections barely a month and a half away and violence escalating in all corners of the country, the forces of occupation steadfastly contend that the ballot box will apply the necessary glue to piece back Iraq’s shattered fragments.
If only Iraq had been made out of plastic.
This past Saturday, 17 political parties (predominantly Sunni Arab) lodged a desperate plea in Baghdad for the postponing of elections until conditions on the ground could allow for fair representation of all of Iraq’s constituents. Major Sunni Arab organizations like the Association of Muslim Scholars have already issued calls for a Sunni boycott. After coalition troops did their fair share of smashing in the “Sunni Triangle,” the majority of this embittered and war-torn community feel understandably excluded from Iraq’s “march towards democracy.” Functional voter education and registration programs, let alone stable political participation, seem a distant prospect when heavy-handed coalition attacks ravaged principal Sunni cities and displaced many of their residents while doing little to curb the insurgency’s growing power.
One would have thought that the more than 200,000 refugees flocking back to the rubble of Falluja had been punished enough. But they now return to a home converted into a coalition-patrolled detention camp. Required to register at “processing centers” on the outskirts of the city, a database of every Fallujan will be compiled using DNA testing and retina scans. Every civilian will be forced to wear at all times a badge identifying them with their street address. Out of fear of suicide bombings, no cars will be allowed in the city; instead, “work brigades” conscripting every able-bodied Fallujan man will be bused to various sites to clean up the mess left by coalition bombing. Military occupation at its most transparent, there is not a sniff of even the promise of democracy in broken Falluja. This is a gulag, not liberation.
Of course, the administration, coalition authorities and, more importantly, 43 Iraqi political parties categorically rejected the Sunni plea. They argue that only after elections (no matter how imperfect) can any sense of normality and stability develop in Iraq.
This is true, but fundamentally flawed and poorly timed elections will do more damage than good. Iraq’s majority Shi’a, who comprise 60 percent of the population, sense a perfect opportunity to establish a firm grip on the reins of power after decades of Sunni Ba’athist domination. Even the Kurds, traditionally the United States’ staunchest ally, are beginning to get cold feet in the face of a potential Shi’a hegemony: Two of the parties petitioning for a postponement were fully Kurdish.
Unlike in Afghanistan, where voters elected Hamid Karzai as the president of a country he has little control over beyond the reaches of Kabul, Iraqis will be voting for an assembly whose function would be to craft a permanent constitution. Building a solid foundation for democracy is well-intentioned given the thinly veiled demagoguery of many premiers in the region (including U.S. allies like Hosni Mubarak, Islam Karimov and Pervez Musharraf), but cannot succeed if all of Iraq’s ethnic groups do not feel they have a stake in the country’s political future. Seats will be distributed to parties according to the proportion of votes received, not on the basis of districts. There is a strong chance, therefore, that Al-Anbar, roughly the region framed into the “Sunni Triangle,” will not be represented at all. A high percentage of Kurdish and Shi’a electoral participation, brought into relief by the inevitably low Sunni turnout, would do little to dispel the deepening divisions within the nation.
Sectarian colors still tinge the incessant violence in Iraq. Kurds and Sunni Arabs war over Mosul in the north, while Sunni insurgents have been accused of gunning down Shi’a pilgrims en route to Najaf and Karbala. Meanwhile, Shi’a leaders in Basra have been mobilizing “Anger Cadres” to participate in revenge killings on Sunnis.
Historically, imperial intervention often exacerbates latent ethnic and religious tensions: The British Raj brought to a fore in India the internecine strife between Hindus and Muslims, and the French did the same with Arabs and Berbers in North Africa. An intrinsic part to the chaos of occupation, such conflict has only been cultivated by coalition troops and the interim government, with its overzealous flattening of the Sunni heartland and now its stubborn refusal to accommodate Sunni needs in the build-up to the elections.
The United States broke Iraq the moment it picked it up. Bush and his butterfingers in the Defense Department can fiddle with the pieces as much as they want, but must drastically revise their plans and ideology if they hope to stop Iraq’s further disintegration.
Ishaan Tharoor is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.