Tuesday, August 09, 2005

An Anglo-British Dispute

Over at t'Sharpener, Justin has a long post about Basra, the growth of theocracy in Iraq, Steven Vincent's criticism of the British occupation authority's alleged indulgence of political Shi'ism, and a perceived lack of support from the pro-war side for secularism in Iraq. I was moved to drop off this comment, which ought to be a post in its own right:
It should be pointed out, I think, that the people of Basra voted by an overwhelming majority for the SCIRI. They apparently know who they want to speak for them, and it sure as hell isn’t Nick Cohen. It would seem to be the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, through the medium of either the Sadrites or SCIRI.

I would query whether or not it is morally better to Fallujahise Basra, as we would end up doing if we were to demand a purge of the police (if we had enough troops - it’s a big place), or to accept the realities of a conservative Shia society. Putting yourself in their shoes, you might not like those realities, you might not want to live in them - but would you really prefer to die by 120mm shell fragments instead?

The whole “are we doing enough to support decent Iraqi democrats” debate seems to me to be an entirely Anglo-British (by analogy with “Franco-Francais”) story - whatever we do, the Iraqi democratic Left (or Right, I’m sure there must be someone somewhere answering that description) is going to lose, and whatever feeble support the denizens of Harry’s muster will do nothing to change that. The Iraqi secularists are like the non-communist nationalists of Vietnam - “une douzaine de messieurs”, three students and a dog. They are not a viable constituency in Iraqi politics outside Kurdistan.

In fact, the only successful faction in Iraq that offered anything like a Western society was the Ba’ath. (snark)I don’t see the Decent Left signing up to fight with the Sunni guerrillas - anyway, they couldn’t feed David Aaronovitch for more than a couple of days without attracting attention. There aren’t enough pies in Iraq for that. (/snark)

Unfortunately, the best form of support the British Left can offer secular Iraqis would be to countersign their applications for political asylum. I think someone suggested this recently - perhaps we could get a Pledgebank going?
It's snarky, I know, probably snarkier than I'd like for a post on TYR. But slightly different standards apply to comments.

My point is this - there were two major forces for secularism and what might be termed a Western society in Iraq, and they were the Ba'ath Party and the Communist Party. Now, over the Saddam years the Ba'ath got progressively less secular as Saddam resorted to manipulating tribalism and Islam to remain in power. War meant he could no longer deliver the main attraction of Ba'athism - the promise of technocratic modernisation, so he had to fall back on other means. The Communists have been reduced to insignificance inside Iraq by decades of repression, and are now more of an exile movement. There is simply no mass secular constituency, and we are fools to imagine one. Secularism in Iraq is an artefact of an urban middle class who did well out of Ba'athism up to 1991.

There might - might - have been an opportunity in the spring of 2003 to change that. Intermediate institutions like the trade unions could have helped, I suppose, but I doubt it. Either way, it's now academic. The question in Iraq is how to minimise the suffering. And attempting to carry through a secularist social revolution in the MND(SE) zone at this late hour is a project so Quixotic it rivals the invasion of Iraq itself. Presumably we would start by purging the police force, which would mean no police and a re-manning of the Sadrists. Then, I suppose, we would have to depose the Shia politicians - who were, after all, elected by a huge majority. Basra will fight, they would say, and Basra will be right.

We would then have successfully started a major campaign of urban warfare. Ho hum. There are 1.5 million people in the city, and 9,000 troops in MND(SE). The ratio is far worse than in Northern Ireland, for example. The answer to this is that firepower could be substituted for manpower. Instead of the grey Land Rover, the Challenger 2 tank. How many of those secular Iraqis would be killed or wounded? How many people in short?

It's a debate completely without relevance to the ground truths, a matter between British intellectuals. Fortunately for the Iraqis and the soldiers, though, they aren't in command, and therefore it won't happen. And, for anyone who thinks the American occupation authority has been a model of idealism compared with those terrible colonial (or is it politically correct and hence weak?) Brits, go and read this. And - by the way - we should be actively considering how and who to take with us when we leave Iraq. My crack about a Pledgebank to support an Iraqi's asylum application is more serious than it sounds.

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