The elections and the resistance in Iraq

Issue: 106

Anne Alexander and Simon Assaf

The day after Iraqis went to the polls, George Bush and Tony Blair declared that Iraq had ‘turned the corner’. Pro-war commentators were quick to demand that the anti-war camp apologise for opposing the war and some who had been against the war conceded that invasion was a price worth paying for ‘democracy’, even if there were no weapons of mass destruction. Yet the positive gloss on the elections hides deepening problems for the occupation. The resistance has not lost its mass support. There are continuing attacks on US troops and their Iraqi allies, while the parties that won the elections cannot deliver on promises over a timetable for withdrawal of US troops and an end to neo-liberal policies.

Why the elections?

US officials have consistently talked of ‘democracy’ in Iraq, but they want an electoral system which gives them scope to control the process. Thus in 2003 they championed the idea of indirect elections from regional caucuses instead of direct, national elections. The timing of the polls was a crucial feature of US strategy. They wanted to delay so as to allow their local allies time to entrench themselves in the machinery of the state. It was this combination of delay and indirect elections that led the most influential Shia cleric, Ali Al Sistani, to call on his supporters to take to the streets in a show of strength in January 2004.

The US finally felt compelled to concede direct elections. But they tried to prepare the ground by what they thought would be a crushing blow against the resistance. Their previous assault against Fallujah in April 2004 had taken place as the same time as they faced armed opposition from the supporters of the more radical of the Shia clerics, Muqtada Al Sadr in Baghdad and many cities in the South. This time they relied upon Sistani’s desire for elections to keep the Shias quiet while they crushed Fallujah.

Continued resistance

But the resistance was not destroyed with Fallujah. The focus simply shifted to Mosul, Ramadi and other cities, while Baghdad continues to record the highest number of daily attacks on US troops and their Iraqi allies. The growing potency of the resistance can been seen by the levels of attacks on occupation forces. In December 2003 there were 510 attacks on US troops; in December 2004 there were 3,000. They have also grown in sophistication, with well planned ambushes and deadly roadside bombs replacing the ‘spray and pray’ tactics that characterised the first months of the resistance. A bleak assessment by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies in December 2004 noted with alarm that 77 percent of all attacks targeted US troops. The report warns of a failure to recognise the growth and character of the insurgency and accuses the US military of using ‘denial as a method of counter-insurgency warfare’.1 Despite US claims, the report says, these were not regime diehards and foreign Jihadis, but a well entrenched national movement with widespread popular support.

Central to the strategy behind the all-out assault on Fallujah was that the US needs to build up reliable local security structures—army, police, prisons and intelligence services. But these plans are seriously adrift. The local forces are in constant danger of collapse. The Brooking Institution in its weekly update on the occupation continues to track severe problems with the Iraqi security services. The US has failed to reach its stated aim for Iraqi security personnel. By January 2005 they planned for a force of 272,566 men trained and equipped to combat the resistance; they recruited only 141,761, of which only 41 percent had weapons, 25 percent access to vehicles and 17 percent radio equipment. Furthermore the security forces are heavily infiltrated by the resistance: ‘Developments in Iraq indicate that the US faces a repetition of its experience in Vietnam in the sense that as various insurgent factions organise, they steadily improve their intelligence’.2

A New York Times report in February 2005 described the quality of the intelligence available to the resistance: ‘Attacks by insurgents to disrupt Baghdad’s supplies of crude oil, gasoline, heating oil, water and electricity have reached a degree of co-ordination and sophistication not seen before. The new pattern shows that the insurgents have a deep understanding of the complex network of pipelines, power cables and reservoirs feeding Baghdad’.3

What the elections showed

A major factor behind the continuation of the insurgency is the high levels of hostility to the occupation across Iraq. A poll conducted on the eve of the elections found 80 percent in Sunni areas and 69 percent in Shia areas wanted the occupying forces to leave.4 Moreover, other opinion polls suggest that the US vision of a neo-liberal Iraq is at odds with the view most Iraqis have of the kind of society they want. In November 2004 only 5 percent said they would support political parties calling for a reduced role for the state in the economy, while over 65 percent wanted to see the state playing a greater economic role.5 In June 2004 an overwhelming 85 percent agreed with the statement that ‘wealth must be fairly and equally divided among the public by the state’.6

Such feelings found some expression in the election results. Iyad Allawi’s election campaign alone should have put paid to any claims that the Iraqi elections were ‘free and fair’. The interim prime minister, a former CIA asset who was hand-picked by US officials to lead the cabinet in June 2004, used every dirty trick to maximise his vote. The fact that he failed to win tells us more about the weakness of the Iraqi state machinery, and Allawi’s failure to build a base of support outside it, than it proves the strength of Iraqi ‘democracy’. Glossy posters, showing just the prime minister’s eyes, promised to crack down on ‘terrorism’. The US-funded TV channel, Al-Iraqiya, churned out endless footage of Allawi kissing babies, Allawi giving pep talks to the National Guard, Allawi announcing the government’s tough security measures for the election. Reporters invited to a press conference organised by the Iraqi National Accord, Allawi’s party, were handed envelopes containing a $100 bill as a ‘gift’. In some areas Iraqi National Guardsmen were handing out election leaflets calling for a vote for Allawi.7

Allawi was not the only one to be accused of manipulating the polls. Turkoman and Christian leaders accused the leading Kurdish parties of ballot-rigging in Ninawa governorate, claiming that in many areas ballot boxes arrived late, or not at all. Turkoman parties also accused the Kurdish parties of bussing in thousands of Kurdish former residents of Kirkuk to vote in the city, ensuring a majority for the Kurdish-dominated Brotherhood list in the local elections. No wonder then, that journalists from the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) found many voters took part in the polls with the memory of Saddam Hussein’s rigged elections fresh in their minds, reporting that rumours were circulating in Karbala that anyone who didn’t vote would be arrested.8 Yet Iyad Allawi, interim prime minister since June 2004, did badly in the elections, as did many of the rest of the former exiles who dominated the Governing Council.

The electoral success of Shia Islamists, such as Abd-al-Aziz Al Hakim from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), allied to the US was due to the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani for their United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list. It won half the seats in the new parliament standing on a platform which includes a specific commitment to set a timetable for US withdrawal, plus a raft of measures including full employment and universal healthcare.

Throughout their time on the Governing Council, Abd-al-Aziz Al Hakim from SCIRI and Ibrahim Al Ja’afari from the Daawah Party did not show the slightest interest in challenging the occupying forces.

However, if the UIA eventually forms a government (at the time of writing, nearly six weeks after the elections, the parties had still not even agreed on a prime minister), it will be more vulnerable to pressure from below than the former exiles. The UIA’s appeal rests on an anti-occupation platform, even if its most important leaders are committed to working with the US. But if they abandon the hopes of those who voted for them, they risk losing support to their more radical rivals, such as Muqtada Al Sadr.

Two faces of Shia Iraq

The relationship between Muqtada Al Sadr and Sistani exposes the contradictions among ‘the Shia’. Far from being the kind of monolithic bloc pictured by the Western media, Shia Iraqis are divided by class and by geography, as well as by language and ethnic identity, as much as they are united by faith. Even among the relatively narrow layer of Iraqi Shia who actively support an Islamist approach to politics, there are huge contradictions. Muqtada Al Sadr, for example, took an ambiguous approach to the elections. His spokesmen announced they would not be standing candidates, arguing that genuine elections could not be held under occupation. They also stressed the need for solidarity with the boycott called by Sunni clerics in protest at the assault on Fallujah. However, they stopped short of urging Iraqis not to vote, as this would have placed Sadr in direct opposition to Sistani. Some of Sadr’s supporters, including the former editor of one of his newspapers, Ishraqat, stood as an independent electoral list which apparently drew most of its support from Sadr City. Meanwhile the UIA leadership claimed that their list included other associates of the young cleric.

Muqtada Al Sadr’s attitude to the elections may well reflect the genuine contradictions in his organisation. On the one hand, his main base of support lies in Sadr City among the Shia urban poor of Baghdad. Sadr City’s residents have experienced the brutality of occupation at first hand, and have risen in rebellion against US troops several times in the past two years. In April 2004 protesters from Sadr City sparked a mutiny among Iraqi National Guardsmen bound for the fighting in Fallujah as they begged them not to join the US-led assault.9 They have little in common with the Shia clerical hierarchy in Najaf and Karbala, which has traditionally allied itself with Shia landowners and merchants. Yet Al Sadr’s constant appeals to the Hawzah, the Shia seminary in Najaf, tie him to this same clerical hierarchy and make it difficult for him to openly defy Sistani.

Falah Jabar, in his authoritative account of the Shia movement in Iraq, issues a warning about characterising religious groups in Iraq with distinct political outlooks: ‘The terms Shia and Shiaism cannot and should not be deployed as sociological categories. Using terms to signify a monolithic type of compact community imbued with unity of purpose and mono- dimensional political orientation is a naive stereotype created by an ignorant world media’.10

For many pro-war commentators, the election results were a victory for the Shia majority over the Sunni-dominated Ba’athist regime. This not only ignores class divisions in Iraqi society, but also hides the ambiguity of US policy towards Iraqi Shias. The success of the insurgency has forced US officials to rely on powerful clerical leaders such as Sistani, but they have always hoped to balance their influence by constructing a coalition of allies from different religious and ethnic groups. In the early days of the occupation, when US commanders thought they were only mopping up ‘Ba’athist remnants’, the warnings from Washington were all about the dangers of Shia radicalism and the pitfalls of majority rule.11

Jabar argues that ‘each social group among the Shia is characterised by a definite form of social organisation, specific lifestyle, distinct value system and independent economic activity and interest’.12 The poor peasants who began settling Sadr City (or Revolution City, as it was then called) over the last 30 years were fleeing Shia landlords, clerics and grain merchants. While the Shia merchants in Najaf and Karbala merged into the upper echelons of clerical hierarchy that made up the great religious and land-owning families, Sadr City has long been the focus of radical movements of the dispossessed, from the Communist Party to Muqtada Al Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Many tribes in Iraq also have Sunni and Shia branches, while the rate of intermarriage is high, especially in urban areas.

For the clerics and merchants who dominate Najaf and Karbala, the occupation has provided the opportunity to develop the trade in pilgrims and build hotels, but for Sadr City the loss of the oil revenues that once provided for the health service and education means the fate of the occupation will determine if they sink deeper into poverty or regain some of the economic securities they enjoyed in the past. Ahmad Hashim describes what is at stake for the Najafi merchants:

After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, these holy cities witnessed a massive revival in commercial activity and the construction of housing and hotels to accommodate pilgrim traffic from Iran and the wider Shia world. Despite tension between native Iraqis in these towns and the recent and richer Iranian inhabitants (many Iraqis blamed the dramatic increase in prices and rents on the Iranians), a large proportion of the population was benefiting from the economic upsurge.13

Class tensions between Shias were revealed when the petty bourgeoisie and commercial class of Najaf and Karbala responded angrily to the loss of business because of the fighting [in September 2004].14

The boycott campaign

Sunni Islamist groups were the main supporters of the campaign to boycott the elections, although several other organisations opposing the occupation also took part, such as the Iraqi National Constituent Congress. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni Islamist group, took the lead as preparations for an attack on Fallujah were revealed in October 2004. The scholars rejected the idea that fair and representative elections could be held under occupation. Sunnis were divided over the issue of the elections. Sunni politicians who joined the Governing Council under Paul Bremer, such as Adnan Pachachi and Ghazi Al Yawir, expressed reservations about the timing of the polls, but did not join the boycott. The Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni Islamist party, at first put forward a list of candidates and then withdrew from the polls.

The extremely low turnout for the elections in the largely Sunni areas confirms that the boycott had solid support. Press reports suggest that while many were concerned about security during polling, many stayed away on principle.15 Those calling for a boycott did not all use violence to try and deter voters, although there were numerous attacks on polling stations. Boycott campaigners put up posters urging people not to vote in Baqubah and Ramadi. Young activists leafleted the streets and mosques in Mosul.

Political and tactical difference inside the resistance

The resistance is not only being tested on the battlefield, but also politically. The elections brought into sharp relief political and ideological differences inside the resistance. The pressure to build a national movement is reflected in the diverse groups involved in the armed resistance. A breakdown of groups found organisations ranging from Islamist to Nationalist and left wing organisations—including a radical split from the Communist Party and the military wing of the long established Iraqi opposition group, the Nasserite Organisation. It may be possible for a resistance to emerge with Islamic leadership, but it could not achieve unity on a specifically Islamist agenda.

There are Sunni fundamentalist tendencies based on Salafism and Wahabism, extreme puritan versions of Islam, and often claiming affiliation to Al Qaida. These number between 300 and 1,000 out of 20,000 estimated resistance fighters, but their attacks on coalition forces through deadly suicide bombings act as a ‘force multiplier’. Although many of the groups are admired for the effective suicide attacks, especially against tanks and armoured columns, there is growing opposition to indiscriminate bombings. Recent reports from the resistance found growing hostility towards Salafist or Al Qaida inspired groups.16 Tensions between local resistance organisations and Salafist groups almost spilled over into fighting in Fallujah on the eve of the US assault in November 2004. After the 28 February car bombing on a police recruitment office in Hillah that killed over 100 locals, one umbrella organisation, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance, based in the Ninawa and Diyala provinces, ordered its members not to co-operate with Salafist groups involved in killing civilians.17 The Association of Muslim Scholars, the public face for the Sunni-based resistance groups, called for an immediate halt to attacks that could endanger civilians. Many of the mainstream Iraqi resistance groups fear such attacks could alienate popular support for the insurgency.

The Salafist interpretation of Sunni orthodoxy sees Shias as heretics, and so the overtly sectarian attacks on Shias, including deadly attacks on mosques and religious festivals, are blamed on these groups by some, although there is no direct evidence. Many others blame US ‘Black Ops’ for the attacks, which are seen as a danger to a unified national movement by presenting the insurgency as exclusively Sunni.18

The resistance is entering a new post-election phase. There could be the development of a more unified movement similar to the PLO, which attempts to narrow the scope of military resistance so as not to undermine popular support, while appealing for national unity.

The Kurds

The Kurdistan Alliance—a joint list of the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—won just under 26 percent of the vote and controls the second largest bloc in the new parliament. It lays claim to the city of Kirkuk, which under Saddam Hussein was ‘Arabised’ by encouraging Arabs to settle there. Kurdish leaders are clear that Kurdish influence over Kirkuk and its oil is a condition of remaining within Iraq. And if the Kurds decide to secede and create an independent Kurdistan, Kirkuk’s oil will be crucial to the new country’s economic viability.

There are no easy answers in Kirkuk, however, as many of the Arabs who settled in the area were poor farmers from the south. Uprooting up to 200,000 people to restore land and property to those forced to move by the Ba’athist regime will not right the injustice done in the past. Turkoman and Arab residents now fear that returning Kurdish former residents will displace them and the city has already seen protests organised by Muqtada Al Sadr’s representative in Kirkuk, Abd-al-Fattah Al Musawi, described by local news reports as a Turkoman.19 The future of Kirkuk will test the unity of the Iraqi state—possibly to destruction.

The Lebanon option?

Some common threads emerge in the US strategy in the face of continued insurgency and popular hostility to the occupation. It does not rely entirely on either a ‘strongman’ neo-Ba’ath type government, nor in straightforward ‘majority rule democracy’. Over the past two years US policy has generally favoured the creation of a ‘consociational democracy’20 in Iraq: the kind of power-sharing agreement on which the Dayton Peace Accord in Bosnia is based.

Under this system different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups are represented in government according to their demographic size, while civil service jobs are allocated according to ethnic quotas. Minority groups are given a veto over government decisions, and the power of the central state is redistributed away from the centre, through a system of regional autonomy or federalism.21

At a superficial level this appears to offer a mechanism for balancing the demands of competing ethnic groups by ensuring that everyone has a place in the sun. In reality, the system entrenches and institutionalises the vertical cleavages in society, whether ethnic, religious or linguistic. It gives those at the top of each ‘community’ a share in the spoils of state power, which they can then dispense as patronage to those further down. Immense power concentrates in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in maintaining the ties which bind together workers and bosses, rich and poor, within their ‘community’, while encouraging members of different groups to see other ethnicities or sects as their main competitors for jobs, services and housing.

The US created the Iraqi Governing Council following a such a framework.22 The Governing Council was dominated by groups which have a sectarian or ethnic character, such SCIRI, the Daawah Party and the two major Kurdish parties. Individual members appear to have been selected as ‘representatives’ of their ‘community’.23 A similar process was applied to the interim cabinet, and there have been persistent claims in the Iraqi press that the interim government has been operating what is by default a quota system for civil service jobs, with the major parties turning the ministries into private fiefdoms.24 A particularly ominous form of the parcelling out of the state has been the institutionalisation of party militias through their incorporation into the security forces. Meanwhile, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), Iraq’s temporary constitution (agreed by US administrator Paul Bremer and the Governing Council in March 2004) effectively gives the Kurds a veto over a permanent constitution, and potentially also allows the creation of autonomous regions for the Turkoman and Chaldo-Assyrian (Iraqi Christian) minorities.25 Such a system could have disastrous consequences in a society as fragmented and impoverished as Iraq, and adds to the urgency of ending the occupation. The occupying forces are playing the politics of divide and rule, hoping to manipulate ethnic and religious strife by institutionalising it.26

Contrary to the picture presented by some, sectarian conflict is not ingrained in Iraqi society, with occupying forces necessary as impartial ‘referees’ to prevent squabbling Iraqis from fighting among themselves. Intermarriage between different sects and religious groups is common. There is no history of sustained ethnic or religious conflict comparable with Lebanon. The state has often engaged in discrimination or tried to stir up sectarianism, but this has rarely been successful in motivating ordinary Iraqis to attack their neighbours. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds remained living in Baghdad, despite Saddam Hussein’s murderous campaign against their relatives in the north.

Yet the longer the occupation continues, the greater the danger that sectarianism will put down deep roots, as the experience of Lebanon shows. It endured 15 years of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s thanks in large part to a ‘consociational’ system of government imposed during the period of French rule between the wars.

If there is a dark cloud hanging over the future of the occupation, there are also grim warnings over the future of the country. US policy is creating the conditions for a rise in sectarianism, religious strife and ethnic conflict. The occupation faces a determined and growing opposition—the resistance. Over the last two years the diverse groups that have taken up arms against the occupation have faced internal as well as external battles. Now the pressure is growing on them to adopt a national agenda, rather than a narrowly Islamist one. If they do so they can counter the immense harm the occupation is doing and deal a blow to US imperialism of global significance. That is why the struggle against the occupation is a priority everywhere.


1: The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End-2004 (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC).

2: Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq Updated 4 March 2005.

3: J Glanz, ‘Insurgents Increasingly Sophisticated in Targeting’, The New York Times, 21 February 2005.

4:Survey Finds Deep Divisions in Iraq; Sunni Arabs Overwhelmingly Reject Sunday Elections; Majority of Sunnis, Shiites Favor US Withdrawal ReadNews.dbm?ID=957 , New Abu Dhabi TV/Zogby Poll Reveals, 28 January 2005,

5: ‘Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion’ , International Republican Institute, 24 November-5 December 2004,

6: As above, 24 July-2 August 2004.

7: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraq Crisis Report no 99, 25 January 2005.

8: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraq Crisis Report no 108, 2 February 2005.

9: See A Alexander and S Assaf, ‘Iraq: The Rise of the Resistance’, International Socialism 105 (Winter 2005).

10: F A Jabar, The Shiite Movement in Iraq (Saqi Books, 2003), p20.

11: Amatzia Baram provides an example of this type of analysis in Post-Saddam Iraq: The Shiite Factor, Iraq Memo 15, Brookings Institution, 30 April 2003

12: F A Jabar, as above.

13: A S Hashim, ‘Iraq’s Chaos: Why the Insurgency Won’t Go Away’, Boston Review (October/November 2004). Ahmad S Hashim is a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

14: As above.

15: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraq Crisis Report no 99, 25 January 2005.

16: Hashim writes of one incident, ‘The different agendas and modi operandi of the nationalist Iraqi insurgents and their ostensible religious Arab allies have caused considerable tensions. In early summer, nationalist insurgents in Fallujah were about to assault a group of foreign jihadists based in the Jolan suburb and who were led by a Saudi with the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah. Later in the summer the insurgent authorities in Fallujah, largely made up of former military personnel and Iraqi police and led by clerics, succeeded in kicking out a number of non-Iraqi terrorists. But this did not resolve the tensions between them and native-born extremists who have the solid backing of a number of Salafi clerics within the city.

17: S Haddad, ‘Iraqi Resistance Distances Itself From Civilian Blood’, 7 March 2005, The report states that ‘on Sunday 27 February Iraqi resistance fighters decided to withdraw from the city of Al-Hadytha, following the US wide-scale crackdown thereon, to spare civilian lives. [The group] also reaffirmed in the statements that it was out of the question for its members to target civilian foreigners, such as reporters, drivers and relief workers. It also pressed for not attacking Iraqi infrastructure facilities, such as oil pipelines, government institutions and public utilities.’

18: Many resistance groups make their declarations in leaflets distributed at Friday prayers, but other sources include the left wing Free Arab Voice which compiles daily reports of resistance attacks and declarations. Report can be found on

19: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraqi Crisis Report no 68, 16 June 2004.

20: A Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (Yale University Press, 1977).

21: A Wimmer, ‘Democracy and Ethno- Religious Conflict in Iraq’, International Institute of Strategic Studies, Survival vol 45, no 4 (Winter 2003-04), p121. See also B O’Leary, ‘Multi-Nationalism, Power- Sharing and the Kurds in a New Iraq’, Cafritz Foundation Conference Center (George Washington University), 12 September 2003, available online

22: B O’Leary, as above.

23: One example was Songul Chapuk, who was appointed to the Governing Council ostensibly as a representative of the Turkoman community. According to Christian Science Monitor she was asked to select the minister of science and technology, and chose Rashad Mandan ‘at random’ from 50 other Turkoman candidates for the post.

24: Interview with Haifa Zanganah, 11 March 2004.

25: Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, Coalition Provisional Authority website. org/government/TAL.html , 8 March 2004

26: See W A Terrill, Strategic Implications of Intercommunal Warfare in Iraq, February 2005, from the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College for a recent US military assessment of the possibility of civil war.