Clive Bradley continues our series on Iraq after the war
George W Bush's plans to take a back seat in Iraq before the US presidential election in November 2004, leaving it in safe Iraqi hands, are coming unstuck. There were mass demonstrations in Basra on 15 January 15 supporting the call of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for direct elections; 100,000 later marched in Baghdad.
The US plan was to transfer sovereignty to a Parliament elected not by universal suffrage, but from local "notables" (tribal chiefs and others) by the end of June this year. This would draft a constitution, and then full elections would be held in 2005. Sistani opposed this from the outset - issuing a "fatwa" (religious ruling) that any government formed without direct elections would be illegitimate. US civil administrator Paul Bremer flew back to Washington for talks, and one US official commented that they would be "crazy" to make an enemy of Sistani. The US and UK are seeking a compromise with Sistani.
The US-led occupation (Britain has control over the southern area round Basra, where last week's demonstrations occurred) faces an increasingly difficult squeeze. The capture of Saddam did not lead, as they hoped, to a decline in insurgency (mainly in the "Sunni triangle" in central Iraq) - on the contrary, "resistance" activities have increased. The total number of deaths of US soldiers hit 500 at the weekend. This is bad for Bush in an election year. The Interim Governing Council established by Bremer last summer has very little legitimacy or mandate, and the occupying forces are anxious to establish something with more weight - allowing them to formally end the occupation and begin the withdrawal of troops. From their point of view, a delicate balancing act has to be performed to make this possible - that is, to construct a stable order which will be friendly to US interests.
Iraq is divided, crudely, into an oil-rich north which is heavily Kurdish, an oil-rich south which is heavily Shia, and a central area with few resources, which is mainly Sunni. It is this Sunni community which has always been politically dominant - partly thanks to British colonial policy. The Ba'th regime was also based among Sunnis.
Calls for a federal Iraq have come from a number of directions. The Kurds themselves, who enjoyed a high degree of self-rule over the past decade under American protection, but whose claims over the largest oil fields are regarded with suspicion and fear by the Arabs (and by neighbouring Turkey, anxious not to see its own recalcitrant Kurds given too much encouragement), have managed to win American agreement for effective local autonomy. Some American experts have been advising "cantonisation" of Iraq.
But one of the more dangerous scenarios, from Washington's point of view, is the break-up of Iraq into warring ethnic and religious groups. It was to avoid it that Bush Sr abandoned the 1991 uprising to its fate. The 2003 war was designed to secure the stability of one of the world's largest oil centres, not plunge it into civil war.
Free elections, as demanded by Ayatollah Sistani, would likely bring Shia parties to power, since the Shia constitute probably 60% or more of the population. This is why Sistani and his followers want them. But the best organised parties among the Shia are Islamists of one sort or another.
The White House views the possibility of an Iran-style government in Baghdad with trepidation. The Sunnis even more so: it seems that an element in the "resistance" - which is heavily (perhaps entirely) Sunni in composition - is Sunni fear of Shia rule. So a Shia majority government, also, might plunge the country into civil war.
Sistani, in fact, is not pro-Iranian. The "object of emulation", or supreme Shia authority in Iraq, he belongs to a quietist tradition in Shia Islam which sharply opposes the clerical rule which exists in Iran, or which is favoured by other, more militant, Shia groups. Sistani wants an Islamic state, but not achieved through militant action.
Sistani has collaborated with the USA so far. It is a serious headache for the occupation that he has gone into open, and uncompromising, opposition.
The British seem to think that a Shia electoral majority could produce something as manageable as the nominally-Islamist government in Turkey; the USA is more cautious although allegedly Bremer is shifting towards support for elections.
The CPA claim that elections are impossible for technical reasons, the lack of a census, etc. Sistani's followers counter that existing ration cards would do for polling, and elections are entirely possible by the summer.
Working class and leftist forces are much less well-organised than either Sistani or other Shia movements (and for that matter, perhaps, than Ba'thists - there is already a reformed post-Saddam Ba'th Party). And an Islamic state, dominated by pro-Sistani groups, or others, is not in working-class interests. But democracy is.
Sistani's championing of the demand for elections gives him even more political weight with a Shia population increasingly opposed to the occupation. The emerging workers' movement can't leave that space uncontested.
There is a growing movement outraged at the sudden imposition of Islamic law. Democrats and socialists plainly cannot support rule by the US military or by caucuses of hand-picked notables and ayatollahs. Elections? Yes. But together with a fight for separation of mosque and state; for trade-union and civil rights; for women's equality; for thorough democracy; for rebuilding an independent workers' movement as the main and most urgent task.