Ushering Democracy into Iraq - Nonviolently

By Metta Spencer | 2003-01-01 12:00:00

In the United States, apart from a few significant street demonstrations, George W. Bush enjoys enormous support for his war plans. Journalists and pollsters say that this reflects, not some strangely innate blood lust on the part of the population, but two prominent concerns - first, the belief that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (as if the US itself did not) and, second, the fact that Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a tyrant who represses his own people. The organizers of protests do not, on the whole, propose any alternative, nonviolent way of bringing democracy to Iraq. What is there to demonstrate for?

Point well taken. The UN weapons inspectors will reduce the first concern - about Iraq's arsenal - but the second issue remains unresolved. However much one objects to the American plan, it is also unconscionable to acquiesce to a dictator who destroys the lives of his own people. However, three groups of peace activists do object to the war and the existing sanctions while disclaiming responsibility for liberating Iraq from tyranny. The first group includes those who do not consider democracy important to peace (many of them had also acquiesced to the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of socialism). The second group consists of people who believe that democracy cannot take root in Iraq now, and that whoever replaces Saddam Hussein will be just as bad, if not worse. They cannot, in conscience, support any worthy but hopeless cause. The third group consists of people who believe that the Iraqi people can rid themselves of their dictator nonviolently, but that such a resistance movement would only be compromised by accepting political or financial support from foreign sources - especially the United States. This article is addressed primarily to members of the third category. While I understand their qualms about accepting money from such sources as the United States government (which in fact has not offered any), I believe that it is urgently necessary to support the nonviolent activities of an Iraqi opposition movement. (See the article by Raid Fahmi on page 7 for the perspective of millions of Middle Easterners on this issue.)

Here I want, first, to appraise the possibility of nonviolently ousting Saddam Hussein; second, to identify the main opposition groups; and third, to consider the prospects for democracy in a post-dictatorship era.

The great majority of Iraqis are not enthusiastic supporters of their leader, despite his claims to that effect. In a referendum held October 15, supposedly 100 percent of the voters supported the extension of Saddam Hussein's presidency for another seven years. Of course, there was no alternative candidate on the ballot. Separate boxes were provided for "Yes" and "No" votes, and anyone present could see where the ballots were placed. It would be extremely dangerous to vote against the president. On previous occasions, "No" voters have been known to be arrested and dragged away, never to be seen again. The most that might have been achieved by way of opposition would have been increased voter absenteeism, which would have been less dangerous than to vote "No." Iraqi citizens don't have easy ways of showing their displeasure.

On the other hand, according to the Norwegian peace activist Jan Oberg, who recently visited Iraq, the average Iraqi citizen is better informed about current affairs in the West than Europeans and Americans are about Iraq. Any Iraqi caught with a satellite dish is fined the equivalent of $500, while a person informing against him gets $250. Nevertheless, some satellite reception does take place, and ordinary TV sets show pirated Hollywood movies, documentaries about Israel, summaries of Western newspapers, belly dance shows, live football matches, and speeches by the president. The Internet and e-mail are spreading, though sanctions have limited their proliferation to the number of computers that can be smuggled into Iraq. Baghdad newspapers offer stories about international affairs and about Western artists and writers that are straight translations of BBC material.


The well-being of Iraq's citizenry will require that two difficult challenges be met. First, the people must rid themselves of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime, and second, a new democratic government must be instituted in a country that is rife with religious, ethnic, clan, and ideological factionalism, and where freedom has never been a way of life. Preparations should be undertaken immediately to implement both of these changes, since if reasonable plans are not undertaken promptly, the opportunities will soon be lost. Indeed, it already is terribly late to start such campaigns.

I will not even discuss whether the Iraqi people deserve to control the circumstances of their own lives, but will assume that every reader can grasp that significant truth. The question is not whether it is desirable to get rid of a dictator, but whether it is feasible, and whether the successor government will constitute any improvement. That is why the challenge of nonviolently toppling Saddam should not be considered in isolation from the realistic opportunities for the subsequent establishment of democracy. A reasonable argument can be made for favorable outcomes on both issues, though it would be truly wrong to underestimate the extent of the difficulty. There will be serious costs, but all other alternatives may cost even more.

There is a growing independent movement for democracy both inside Iraq and in the émigré community. For example, on October 22, two astonishing demonstrations occurred at the Baghdad Ministry of Information, where several protestors demanded information about their imprisoned relatives. After they were broken up by police, the Information Minister said he would try to account for the whereabouts of their lost relatives. "Something like this has never happened before," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "It's a very, very important and unusual event."

One émigré leader is an exiled journalist, Ismail Zayer, who lives in the Netherlands. He coordinates a nonviolent democratic opposition group, "No to Saddam," which advocates a "third choice" - neither war nor keeping Saddam in power. Zayer supports human rights everywhere and claims that "nonviolence is a new trend in Arabic politics. We are aware of Palestinian nonviolence and are trying to team up with them." Zayer believes that the power of Iraq's leadership is crumbling. He is working with supportive organizations in the United States - especially the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C. - a small, private nongovernmental organization headed by Jack DuVall.

In Virginia last January DuVall's organization held a session on strategic nonviolent conflict. Iraqi Kurds met with organizers of nonviolent struggles from South America, the US Civil Rights Movement, Chile, Poland, Mongolia, and Serbia.

DuVall and his colleague Peter Ackerman - both scholar-activists who have studied numerous historical cases of nonviolent resistance - are training Iraqi exiles who are willing to work for a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Ackerman is chair of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. With the recent example of the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in mind, they maintain that a similar kind of civilian insurrection is a realistic way for Iraqi people to topple Saddam.

They represent a minority view. Most of the recognized Iraqi opposition groups expect that the United States will lead a coalition to unseat the dictator, and believe that nothing short of armed force from abroad will accomplish such a change. The power of nonviolent resistance has never been comprehended widely and even when it has proved successful, people often tend to discount it as a fluke or attribute it to other factors. Ackerman and DuVall, strongly influenced by the eminent peace researcher Gene Sharp, maintain that the success or failure of nonviolence depends on choices made among a vast number of techniques. The goal is not to make a symbolic point, but to triumph by strategically using methods that work precisely against the circumstances that are holding tyranny in place. Nonviolent strategies require the same kind of intelligence as the planning of military engagements. Fortunately, their victims ordinarily are far fewer.

Ackerman and DuVall acknowledge that Saddam's rule may be as brutal as that of any dictator since Stalin. On the other hand, he does not enjoy the support that Stalin had - an entrenched party system, backed by ideological zealots. Instead, his hold on power depends more on personal loyalties, material rewards, and mortal penalties. If a campaign against him began with civilian-based incidents of disruption that were dispersed around the country, offering no convenient targets, then any crack-down would depend on the outermost, least reliable members of Saddam's repressive apparatus. If the resisters made it clear to police and soldiers that they were not viewed as the enemy, then the realization that Saddam was being opposed openly would lessen the danger of carrying out further acts of resistance. As opposition became more visible, there would be new places for defectors to meet.

"Saddam recognizes that he can't fight a battle to repress a population on all fronts," says Ackerman. "He has to terrorize to get compliance. The more people he employs to terrorize the population, statistically speaking, the more unreliable his security force. There are elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard he is afraid to have in Baghdad."

Ackerman and DuVall point out that when a nonviolent movement begins, most people think success is impossible, because they can just see the costs of resisting, rather than the costs that the resisters can impose on those in power. Dictatorial regimes are only as tolerant as required to maintain the façade of internal or external legitimacy. Not only gentle, polite regimes have been overthrown, but also some that brutalized their opponents.

"Strategic nonviolent action is not about being nice to your oppressor, much less having to rely on his niceness," say Ackerman and DuVall. "It's about dissolving the foundations of his power and forcing him out. It is possible in Iraq."

But what then? There would be no point in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, only to see him succeeded by another dictator who would rule the same way. Therefore, whenever preparations are made to launch a nonviolent resistance movement, plans must be laid for establishing a democratic regime that will hold together over the long term.


The prospects of attaining cooperation among the disparate Iraqi political groups seem bleak. Opposition political groups cannot openly function within any part of Iraq that is controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Indeed, the secret police includes a significant fraction of the population (as in Romania under Ceaucescu and East Germany during the Communist regime), making private discussions of political matters dangerous. Even remote Iraqi villages that lack electricity are well supplied with political informants.

Not only does the regime repress political criticism, but the opposition groups themselves are so divided that pluralistic politics would be difficult, even if circumstances permitted openness.


The Kurds, who constitute 19 percent of the Iraqi population, live in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) of northern Iraq. That region was established in the 1970s but relations were always tense and, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Kurdish guerrillas attacked the Iraqi regime, with help from Iran. In retaliation, Saddam Hussein waged war against the strongholds of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), even using chemical weapons in thousands of villages. After the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush incited rebellion among the Kurds, without providing assistance for their troops against Saddam's forces. The Kurdish insurrection was crushed and some 1.5 million Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey. Baghdad forces regained control of the autonomous region, but then Western troops forced them out of the security zone. Today, most Kurds mistrust the United States, expecting that Washington might grant Turkey even greater influence in northern Iraq in exchange for the right to use Turkish land as bases for military action against Iraq. For its part, the Turkish government is anxious not to encourage Kurds, since many issues with their own separatist Kurds remain unresolved.

The two main Kurdish parties in KAR - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - have sometimes fought against each other. For example, in 1996 the KDP sought aid from the Iraqi troops to gain control of PUK land. However, the two parties now are sharing power in a relatively civil way. Together they have a total of about 40,000 troops, which the Americans view as potentially comparable to the oppositional function of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. However, the Kurds may be unwilling to undertake any such risks, especially now that they enjoy significant levels of freedom and are prospering from access to the cheap fuel and profits of oil smuggling operations that the Iraq regime encourages.

Besides, despite their strength in numbers, the Kurdish parties have apparently been losing influence within the opposition groups and are not thought capable of leading a movement to overthrow the regime. To do so, they would have to compromise with other ethnic groups - notably the Arabs, Turkmens, and Assyrians, all of which have expatriate communities and political groups.


The Shias make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people. (The ruling group in Baghdad has long been dominated by Sunni Muslims - a group that constitutes only 16 percent of Iraq's population.) Mostly based in the south, the Shia are unlikely to cooperate with a US-led invasion, since they reportedly doubt that it is the way to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In 1991 they did participate in an uprising against the Iraqi president, along with other groups, but this effort was crushed, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives, mainly because the US did not offer military help, despite having incited the insurrection.

The Shiite opposition is supported by Iran and continues to maintain a military organization of between 7,000 and 15,000 men. Their organization is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is based in Tehran. There are also other Shia groups functioning within Iraq. Not surprisingly, at a meeting of opposition groups in London this fall, the Shiite delegates stated that they did not want a federation in Iraq, and that nothing would succeed in replacing Baghdad as the capital of the country.


The entire exiled Iraqi opposition movement comprises mostly Kurds and Shiites, but it also includes ethnic and secular communities, such as Turkmens, Assyrians, and Communists. The largest effort to coordinate these various communities has taken place within an umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which was formed in 1992 and is now the best-known organization. It is based in London.

Washington has attempted in the past to consult with opposition groups, to support and to increase unity among them. In 1998 the US Congress authorized expending nearly $100 million for anti-Saddam activities, but not for combat training. A large portion of the money was to be distributed to the INC, which produces satellite TV programs for Iraq. However, the organization's accounting procedures came under attack and most of the money was never administered.

Indeed, some observers are apprehensive about the quality of leadership available within the entire spectrum of exiled Iraqis. The Sunday Herald in Glasgow even ran an article by Ca bridge lecturer Glen Rangwala, titled, "Unveiled: The Thugs Bush Wants in Place of Saddam," that named the most probable successors of the Iraqi president. One is a former general, Nizar Al-Khazraji, who led the Iraqi army during the invasion of Kuwait and who is the most senior figure ever to have defected from Saddam's regime. He has been blamed for the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s - a charge that he calls a calculated smear. Another influential Iraqi is Ahmad Al-Chalabi, a former banker and Shia who fled to London in 1989 under charges of embezzlement. He took over the INC for a while and is still often referred to as the "future president of Iraq," despite the fact that about half the money the US gave to the INC during his leadership was not properly accounted for. He remains popular among some factions of American strategists.

By this past summer, as the Bush administration was gearing up for war, many doubts were emerging about the merit of "changing the regime" unless it was clear what kind of democratic regime would replace the dictatorship. In May, a three-day conference was held in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, under the auspices of a British organization, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. There were 130 participants - academics, clergy, journalists, chieftains, and students from three universities and different ethnic, ideological, and religious backgrounds - who called for sanctions to be lifted, for the development of civil society, for democratic reforms, and for an integration of the whole region, modeled after the European Union.

In July, the US State Department began holding "working group" meetings to bring the Iraqi factions together. These meetings included the INC (which continues to enjoy strong backing from Washington), plus the Kurdish parties; the London-based Iraqi National Accord (which comprises former members of the ruling Ba'ath Party); the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the main Shiite Muslim organization.

Not many of these groups see eye to eye. The question is, can a viable democratic regime be created from such material? The prospects are not promising. At our press time in mid-December they had just convened a long-delayed conference in London. Some 300 delegates attended, representing the whole political spectrum of parties, plus ethnic and religious groups. They promised to keep working toward a common program. The attitude in the United States remains mixed. Some strategists, skeptical about the capacity of expatriate political groups to work together, prefer the idea of fostering a coup by Iraqi military leaders. Yet others prefer turning post-Saddam Iraq over to the United Nations as a protectorate (perhaps along the same lines as Kosovo) to evade the (to them) distasteful task of "nation-building." The prospect of unseating the regime by nonviolent means and instituting a truly democratic regime is rarely considered.


Laith Kubba is an Iraqi who works in Washington D. C. with the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. The Endowment is governed by an independent, nonpartisan board of directors. Although some émigré Iraqis worry about Kubba's closeness to the US State Department (they demand that any opposition group remain financially and politically remote from American influences) others worry about the opposite problem - that, apart from the Kurds, no Iraqi democratic opposition groups receive financial help from the US government.

Kubba believes democracy is possible in all Muslim countries, including Iraq. He maintains that there is nothing in Islamic texts and traditions to interfere with democratization, for the cultural obstacle is not religious, but only a deficit of modernity. Eventually there will be a regime change in Iraq, but none of the options suggested to date is workable, in his opinion, so he offers the following proposals of his own.

The fragmented communities of Shi'ites, Kurds, and Sunnis must manage a transition that is difficult, Kubba says, but not impossible. The important thing is to create an inclusive interim power-sharing administration that will maintain order while allowing all the interest groups to express their ideas. The most urgent step will be to hold a constitutional assembly and plan for a free, fair referendum on ratification, while maintaining law and order.

The last thing Iraq needs is another strongman, says Kubba. Instead, the interim administration should have three temporary councils. One would function as a lower house for deputies appointed or elected by political groups. Opposition organizations, whether in exile or in northern Iraq, could fill up to three-quarters of its 200 seats.

The second council would be a sort of senate, with 100 seats mainly for tribal, religious, and ethnic dignitaries. It would give traditional leaders a role and ensure the inclusion of minorities such as Turkmens, Chaldeans, and Assyrian Christians. These two councils would nominate members of the constitutional assembly, but should stay out of administrative matters.

A third council would handle national security and control weapons and armed men, preventing the outbreak of private warfare. It would include officers from the current Iraqi military and security establishment, plus representatives of the political opposition organizations named above. Kubba proposes allowing most of Saddam's ordinary civilian bureaucrats, as opposed to secret police, to keep their jobs.

Overseeing the transition would be a three-member presidency with authority over the three temporary councils. There would be one senior figure from the north, the centre, and the south - all with untarnished records of integrity. The presidency would appoint cabinet ministers, consulting with the KDP and PUK regarding nominations concerning the north and with the SCIRI regarding the south.

Kubba acknowledges that this plan will not please everyone, but says it would allow for a legitimate and legal transfer of power. It makes existing armed groups part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


George W. Bush can prevent a war against Iraq merely by deciding not to launch it. He can also improve the quality of life for ordinary Iraqi citizens by agreeing to end the harsh sanctions that have killed so many people - especially innocent children. But neither of these decisions alone would bring democracy and human security to the Iraqi citizens. Basically, the people must claim those rights by their own efforts, ousting the dictator and establishing a better government in which old ethnic, ideological, and religious enmities are constrained within pluralistic tolerance.

This can be done. It cannot be done overnight, and it cannot be done at all without moral and financial support. DuVall's Center for Nonviolence hopes eventually to have a $100 million private endowment to challenge dictators, but the money does not exist for that purpose yet. Nongovernmental organizations and, especially, governments themselves have little faith in the potential of nonviolent resistance. Too often, they are afraid of appearing naïve by supporting a cause that has little chance of success. No one can be sanguine that Iraq's dictatorship will collapse easily or without imposing pain on the domestic opposition. However, the cost of supporting an autonomous nonviolent movement calling for democracy is a pittance in comparison to the probable alternative - war - whereas the payoff is enormous in terms of lives potentially saved, and as a way of recovering the respect and trust of Muslims throughout the world.

It's a promising investment. So far, however, no government has offered recognition or support comparable to that devoted to ousting Milosevic. Private sources of assistance are even less available, but unless democratic peace activists support their true allies among Iraqis, public opinion will waver and fail to block Bush's war plans.

In mid-December, however, USSecretary of State Colin Powell announced a major American policy shift that, if fulfilled, will certainly bear upon these issues. According to Powell, the US will henceforth not play favorites, aligning with some Middle Eastern autocrats while demanding that others introduce reforms. He declared that the rulers of oil-rich Persian Gulf countries have failed to bring either democracy or prosperity to the Arab world. "I no longer think that is affordable and sustainable. America wants to align itself with the people of the Middle East." It will promote democratic change and social reforms throughout the region.

If this really is the US policy it may have been designed to mollify Arab indignation over the US double standard (attacking Iraq while retaining other Islamic dictators as allies). Nevertheless, a universalistic policy of reform will be welcomed by the despairing Arab populations. It will also create new opportunities and challenges for peace activists. We should promote nonviolent ways of attaining these goals ourselves.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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