Second, the price of internal conflict. Religion is the politics of the unarmed opposition to the occupation. What we are witnessing on the streets of Baghdad and Basra is a struggle for power within the Shia community. What should be the character of the new Iraqi state? And, as the UN continues to dither over the timing of elections, when will this come about?
Third, and related to this most pressing question of elections, is the price of confusion. An intricate web of pacts and pay-offs is being constructed between the American occupiers and their assorted interest groups, but how long this will last is an open question.
As the events of this last week have shown, the key issue now is the one of direct elections. Kofi Annan is ready to go into action. The United Nations security council has recognized the puppet government in Iraq. Two weeks ago a gathering in Munich brought France and Germany back on board. The occupation of an Arab country is now backed by most of the northern hemisphere. All that is needed is an official UN umbrella to pretend that it isn't an imperial occupation and try to effect a compromise with the Shia religious leaders.
Their position is awkward because the armed resistance has forced them to organize mass mobilizations and put forward their own alternative to the occupation. They have demanded immediate elections to a constituent assembly whose members will frame a new constitution. So what might be the result of such elections?
In the past secular politics cut across sectarian and ethnic divisions. The Ba'ath party itself was founded in Basra and its pre-Saddam leadership consisted of many people of Shia origin. It was the combination of Saddam's repression, the post-1989 turn to religion in north and south and US opportunism (in the shape of money and weapons to the anti-Saddam religious groups) after the first Gulf war that led to the total dominance of the religious leaders in the south.
The two principal leaders of the unarmed opposition, Ali al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr, are vying for popular support. Al-Sadr is hostile both to the occupation and plans to federate Iraq, which he sees as the first step towards Balkanization and western control of Iraqi oil.
Sistani, who represents the interests of Teheran and is friendly with the Foreign Office in London, has been collaborative but, fearing that he might lose support to his rival, he has demanded an immediate general election. It is he who wants to talk to Kofi Annan so that he is not seen as talking to the despised occupiers.
If Annan tells him that elections should be delayed, he might be more willing to fall into line. But if elections are held and result in a Shia majority, might not Iraq go the way of Iran in the late-70s? In terms of religious laws it undoubtedly will. Both Sistani and al-Sadr have demanded the imposition of the sharia.
But it's not just about politics and religion. Power leads to money and clientelism. There are members of families and tribes linked to the main clerical groups in the south and they are impatient. A great deal will depend on two key issues: who controls Iraq's oil and how long US/UN troops should remain in the country. As a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the clerical regime in Iran has become a key player. Once part of the "axis of evil", its close ties with Sistani necessitate a Washington-Teheran rapprochement.
And how better to facilitate this than by dredging up the bogey of the Wahhabite al-Qaida? The US may have sought to blame it for this week's car bomb attacks. But this ignores the fact that "if you collaborate, then be prepared to pay the price" has been the message of virtually every national struggle over the last century.
In Vichy France and occupied Yugoslavia and later in Vietnam, Algeria, Guinea and Angola, collaborators were regularly targeted. Then, as in Iraq today, the resistance was denounced by politicians and the tame press as "terrorists". When the occupying armies withdrew and the violence ceased, many of the "terrorists" became "statesmen".
Some of us who were opposed to the war argued that while US military occupation of Iraq would be easy they would face a resistance on different levels. And, as becomes plainer every day, the achilles tendon of the occupation is its incapacity to control a hostile population. Hence the need for collaborators. Destroying states by overwhelming military power is one thing. State building is a more complex operation and requires, at the very least, a friendly if not a docile population.
Can US primacy be maintained indefinitely in the face of overwhelming hostility? Obviously not, but neither can the US, regardless of which party is in power, afford a setback in Iraq. That would be a major blow against the "empire" and weaken its ability to control other parts of the world. Add to this a small irony: under Saddam, al-Qaida was not present in Iraq. If a few of its members are there now it is because of the Anglo-American occupation.
The occupation authorities are trapped. The occupation is costing $3.9bn a month. Politically, if they permit a democratic election they could get a government whose legitimacy is unchallengeable and which wants them out of the country. If they go for a rigged, Florida-style vote, it would be impossible to contain Shia anger and an armed resistance would commence in the south, raising the specter of a civil war.
Militarily, the capture of Saddam has not affected the US casualty rate, and the number of nervous breakdowns and suicides in the US army occupying Iraq has reached unprecedented levels. Sooner than anyone could have predicted the occupation has become untenable. Regime changes in Washington and London would be small punishment compared to what is being inflicted on Iraq.
Tariq Ali is a critically acclaimed novelist and film-maker. He is most recently author of Bush in Babylon: Re-colonising Iraq (Verso, 2003) and The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (Verso, 2002). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay first appeared in The Guardian of London. Posted with author's permission.
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