'The people of Iraq are free," declared U.S. President George W. Bush in Tuesday's State of the Union address. The day before, 100,000 Iraqis begged to differ. They took to the streets of Baghdad shouting "Yes, yes to elections. No, no to selection."
According to Iraq occupation chief Paul Bremer, there really is no difference between the White House's version of freedom, and the one being demanded on the street. Asked on Friday whether his plan to form an Iraqi government through appointed caucuses was headed toward a clash with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for direct elections, Mr. Bremer said he had no "fundamental disagreement with him."
It was, he said, a mere quibble over details. "I don't want to go into the technical details of refinements. There are, if you talk to experts in these matters, all kinds of ways to organize partial elections and caucuses. And I'm not an election expert, so I don't want to go into the details. But we've always said we're willing to consider refinements."
I'm not an election expert either, but I'm pretty sure there are differences here than cannot be refined. Ayatollah al-Sistani's supporters want every Iraqi to have a vote, and for the people they elect to write the laws of the country -- your basic, imperfect, representative democracy.
Mr. Bremer wants his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to appoint the members of 18 regional organizing committees. The committees will then select delegates to form 18 selection caucuses. These selected delegates will then further select representatives to a transitional national assembly. The assembly will have an internal vote to select an executive and ministers who will form the new government of Iraq. That, Bush said in his address, constitutes "a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."
Got that? Iraqi sovereignty will be established by appointees appointing appointees to select appointees to select appointees. Add to that the fact that Mr. Bremer was appointed to his post by President Bush and that Mr. Bush was appointed to his by the U.S. Supreme Court, and you have the glorious new democratic tradition of the appointocracy: rule by appointee's appointee's appointees' appointees' appointees' selectees.
The White House insists that its aversion to elections is purely practical: there just isn't time to pull them off before the June 30 deadline. So why have the deadline? The most common explanation is that Bush needs "a braggable" on the campaign trail: When his Democratic rival raises the specter of Vietnam, Mr. Bush will reply that the occupation is over, we're on our way out.
Except that the United States has absolutely no intention of actually getting out of Iraq. It wants its troops to remain, and it wants Bechtel, MCI and Halliburton to stay behind and run the water system, the phones and the oil fields. It was with this goal in mind that, on Sept. 19, Mr. Bremer pushed through a package of sweeping economic reforms that The Economist described as a "capitalist dream."
But the dream, though still alive, is now in peril. A growing number of legal experts are challenging the legitimacy of Mr. Bremer's reforms, arguing that under the international laws that govern occupying powers -- the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the 1949 Geneva Conventions -- the CPA can only act as a caretaker of Iraq's economic assets, not as its auctioneer. Radical changes such as Mr. Bremer's Order 39, which opened up Iraqi industry to 100 per cent foreign ownership, violate these laws and could therefore be easily overturned by a sovereign Iraqi government.
That prospect has foreign investors seriously spooked, and many are opting not to go into Iraq. The major private insurance brokers are also sitting it out, having assessed Iraq as too great an expropriation risk. Mr. Bremer has responded by quietly canceling his announced plan to privatize Iraq's 200 state firms, instead putting up 35 companies for lease (with a later option to buy). For the White House, the only way for its grand economic plan to continue is for its military occupation to end: only a sovereign Iraqi government, unbound by the Hague and Geneva Regulations, can legally sell off Iraq's assets.
But will it? Given the widespread perception that the United States is not out to rebuild Iraq but to loot it, if Iraqis were given the chance to vote tomorrow, they could well immediately decide to expel U.S. troops and to reverse Mr. Bremer's privatization project, opting instead to protect local jobs. And that frightening prospect -- far more than the absence of a census -- explains why the White House is fighting so hard for its appointocracy.
Under the current U.S. plan for Iraq, the transitional national assembly would hold onto power from June 30 until general elections are held no later than Dec. 31, 2005. That's 17 leisurely months for a non-elected government to do what the CPA could not legally do on its own: invite U.S. troops to stay indefinitely and turn Mr. Bremer's capitalist dream into binding law. Only after these key decisions have been made will Iraqis be invited to have their say. The White House calls this self-rule. It is, in fact, the very definition of outside-rule, occupation through outsourcing.
That means that the world is once again facing a choice about Iraq. Will its democracy emerge stillborn, with foreign troops dug in on its territory, multinationals locked into multiyear contracts controlling key resources, and an entrenched economic program that has already left 60-70 per cent of the population unemployed? Or will its democracy be born with its heart still beating, capable of building the country Iraqis choose?
On one side are the occupation forces. On the other are growing movements demanding economic and voter rights in Iraq. Increasingly, occupying forces are responding to these movements by using fatal force to break up demonstrations, as British soldiers did in Amarah earlier this month, killing six. Yes, there are religious fundamentalists and Saddam loyalists capitalizing on the rage in Iraq, but the very existence of these pro-democracy movements is itself a kind of miracle: After 30 years of dictatorship, war, sanctions and, now, occupation, it would certainly be understandable if Iraqis met further hardships with fatalism and resignation. Instead, the violence of Mr. Bremer's shock therapy appears to have jolted tens of thousands into action.
Their courage deserves our support. Last week, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, author and activist Arundhati Roy called on the global forces that opposed the Iraq war to "become the global resistance to the occupation." She suggested choosing "two of the major corporations that are profiting from the destruction of Iraq" and targeting them for boycotts and civil disobedience.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush said, "I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again." He is being proven right in Iraq every day -- and the rising voices are chanting, "No, no U.S.A. Yes, yes elections."
Naomi Klein is the author of 'No Logo' and 'Fences and Windows'.