Is there really much difference between John Kerry and George Bush when it comes to Iraq? George Bush’s remark that Kerry’s Iraq plan is the same as his own has some basis in truth, since neither Kerry nor Bush is willing to do the one thing that’s necessary to end the armed insurgency in Iraq: begin withdrawing US troops immediately.

When the Left says the troops must be brought home now, today, many mainstream people stop listening. “That’s giving up responsibility,” they say. “We created the mess, so we must fix it”–a common theme among liberals and conservatives alike, but one that’s based on the arrogant assumption that the US is the world’s global police force with a mandate to “fix” problems and clean up the world under the banner of democracy. “We might make a few mistakes, but our intentions are good; give us time and we’ll make it right” or so the thinking goes. Even among those who agree that the war in Iraq has little to do with fighting terrorism, there’s still the assumption that terrorists are our main enemy, that they’ve joined the battlefield in Iraq, and they must therefore be “hunted down and killed,” to use John Kerry’s oft-repeated phrase.

In fact, Iraq is neither a mess we have to clean up nor a magnet for terrorists. Military analysts, including diehards at the Pentagon, are starting to admit that the Iraqi insurgency is composed of indigenous Iraqi nationalists–people who have suffered too long under US occupation. Unemployment has reached as high as 80% in some areas of the country. Electrical blackouts still occur daily in Baghdad and other cities, and any electrical supply at all is the exception, not the rule, in many rural areas. One in three urban households lack safe drinking water; in the countryside it’s worse, with three in five households lacking clean water. As for the healthcare system, conditions are worse than under the sanctions of the 1990s, with health care having deteriorated to levels seen in Sudan and Afghanistan. One in three Iraqi children is malnourished, routine vaccinations are unavailable, and doctors worry that measles, mumps, and rubella will kill vast numbers of children this winter. As for the adult population, preventable diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis are already at epidemic proportions.

From these statistics, we can begin to understand why the insurgents have had such an easy time recruiting new members. At the same time, foreign terrorists have been hard to find in Iraq. Earlier this month, US troops encircled the city of Tal Afar, determined to capture foreign terrorists supposedly sneaking across the border from Syria. They came up empty-handed, however, finding instead that the insurgency in Tal Afar amounted to about 70 armed locals who were fed up with the miserable conditions under US occupation.

That’s not to imply that the insurgents are united under one banner or all adhere to the same political philosophy. The guerrillas are disparate, composed of many small groups that have conflicting viewpoints. Some are merely nationalists, some are Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, some are Sunni tribesmen worried–with justification–that they are being sidelined from the political process, and some (a tiny minority) are Muslim fundamentalists dreaming of a global jihad. What unites all these different groups is one thing: hatred of the US occupying force and contempt for the Iraqi interim government, which is composed mostly of exiles imported and financed by the United States.

If US troops were to leave tomorrow, the insurgency would break apart into its constituent groups. It would dissolve, lacking the one thing that unites it. The fear that a civil war might break out is real, but not likely–at least not yet. Iraq is in a critical period: the elections have not happened yet, and so no single group of Iraqis has been officially disenfranchised. There is still hope among Iraqis that democracy might work. A recent poll taken by the US government found that 85% of the Iraqis interviewed (those willing to speak to US representatives) wanted to vote in an upcoming election. If US troops were not busy alienating Sunnis from the polls and the UN were able to run the election with UN peacekeepers to protect the polling places, then the willingness to participate in a peaceful political process might be universal.

The prospects for a peaceful election in January, however, are becoming dimmer by the day. Currently, there are only 35 UN personnel in Iraq, and only 5 of these people are specialists from the UN’s electoral committee. Because of the security situation, they are unable to leave the Green Zone, the walled compound in the heart of Baghdad that houses the US embassy and the interim Iraqi government. UN staffers are currently “working in secret” to hire native Iraqis to register voters and run polling stations–they’re literally hiring people over the phone. This adds a dimension of potential corruption and infiltration by the insurgents that could be nightmarish in scale.

Another process is occurring in secret: political parties are drawing up lists of candidates to run for positions on the new assembly. “Political parties” is the polite term that Iraqis use to describe the returning exiles who’ve shoehorned themselves into positions of influence in the interim government. No other political campaigning has been taking place, and candidates without a “political party” to back them have been at a serious disadvantage in the past. This is unlikely to change between now and next January.

Although the Bush administration is pursuing military offensives throughout the Sunni triangle to “pacify” the countryside in preparation for the elections in January, this strategy is likely to fail. Many Pentagon and State Department personnel acknowledge this, and have discussed the possibility of holding partial elections in the Kurdish north, in Baghdad, and in the Shiite south. Disenfranchising the Sunni population, however, is the quickest route to creating an entrenched guerrilla army, which will mean no withdrawal for US troops in the near future–not for years, and maybe not for decades.

Meanwhile, the only other viable option–delaying elections to allow time for a UN force to replace US troops–carries the risk of turning Ayad Allawi’s government into a dictatorship in the eyes of the Iraqi populace, and perhaps in actual fact. Allawi has already earned the reputation as a strongman, from his heated rhetoric about subduing the city of Fallujah, to his mouthing of Bush administration fantasies about foreign terrorists invading his country. In addition, the training and deployment of Iraqi special forces teams that operate above the law, torture suspects, and arrest and hold detainees indefinitely have caused many Iraqis to fear that Ayad Allawi is a new Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration is sensitive, as John Kerry would also be, to the charge that the US invaded Iraq only to replace Saddam Hussein with a more friendly dictator.

So, while the most important step in dealing with the insurgency (immediate withdrawal of US troops) appears to be foreclosed, the issue is not so black-and-white. Intermediate steps can and must be taken towards that goal now, while there’s still time. The Bush administration must cease its disastrous policy of pacification of the Sunni triangle, which is sparking an intensification of the insurgency. Negotiations with the force that the French foreign ministry now calls “the legitimate armed opposition in Iraq” must be undertaken in earnest, not merely as a delaying tactic between military strikes, as has been the case in the past. Meaningful reconstruction must be undertaken by directly using Iraqi companies with Iraqi employees, and not through Bechtel, Halliburton, and other foreign corporations with high overhead costs and dubious reputations.

More importantly, the Bush administration must cede control of the “mission” and allow foreign troops to replace US troops in Iraq. A group of Muslim nations recently offered to send troops to Iraq, but George Bush said no because the UN would be in control of the new Muslim force. This is not a “lack of planning,” as John Kerry asserts; it is ideological fanaticism and should be rewarded with scorn and condemnation.

While John Kerry might do things somewhat differently if he’s elected, he will have a limited time in which to analyze the problem and make the complete reversal that’s necessary–if he’s willing. The US people must first vote George Bush out of office, then protest loudly and long about what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. We have to call for negotiations, an end to the pacification program, ceding control to the UN, and the beginning of a US troop withdrawal before the January elections. John Kerry should take office with no illusions about what must be done in Iraq, and that it must be done quickly.

Sources:

“We’ve Seen the Enemy and They Are…Who, Exactly?” Edward Wong, New York Times, 10/17/04, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/weekinreview/17wong.html

“2 pictures emerge of militants’ power,” Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, 10/18/04, http://www.boston.com

“Prolonged US occupation turning Iraqis into fighters,” Newhouse News Service, reprinted in The Seattle Times, 10/24/04, A21

“Iraq faces soaring toll of deadly disease,” Jeremy Laurence, The Independent, 10/13/04, http://news.independent.co.uk

“Election doubt as UN staff asks to pull out,” Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 10/8/04, http://news.independent.co.uk

“Religious Leaders Ahead in Iraq Poll,” Robin Wright, Washington Post, 10/22/04

“Iraq Faults UN on Lack of Staff to Aid in Voting,” Dexter Filkins and Warren Hoge, NY Times, 10/21/04, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/21/international/middleeast/21nations.html

“UN Aide Says Iraqi Elections Are on Target,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 10/22/04, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/22/international/middleeast/22elections.html

“Vote Monitors Concerned by Iraq Violence,” Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press, 10/21/04

“US-led troops will protect UN officials in Iraq vote: Powell,” French Press Agency (AFP), 10/21/04

“US Plans Year-End Drive to Take Iraqi Rebel Areas,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 9/19/04, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/international/middleeast/19strategy.html

“Fighting in Sunni Triangle Dims Prospects for Talks,” Edmund Sanders, LA Times, 10/13/04, http://www.latimes.com

“Inside besieged Falluja,” BBC, 10/19/04, htt://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3748966.stm

“Sacking of crusading judge fuels concerns over Iraq rights record,” AFP, 10/19/04

“Iraqi Government’s Peace Talks With Falluja Break Off; US Drive Against Rebels Expected,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 10/19/04, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/19/international/middleeast/19falluja.html

“Profiteering Inflates Costs of US Reconstruction Projects in Iraq,” T. Christian Miller, LA Times, 10/20/04, http://latimes.com

“Army to Let Halliburton Keep Iraq Payment,” Reuters, 10/22/04

“Report: Bush Blocked Plan for Muslim Iraq Force,” Irwin Arieff, Reuters, 10/18/04