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Making Basra Safe for Theocracy

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

Ever the cockeyed optimist, President Bush continued to insist this week that progress is being made in Iraq. Yet, as of Sunday morning, August 28th, it appeared increasingly likely that Sunni negotiators will urge their supporters to vote "No" on the flawed Constitution that Shiites and Kurds have agreed on. Their decision to oppose ratification could not only lead to rejection of the document at the polls, but also add fuel to the raging insurgency.

If that prospect were not enough to wipe the perpetual smirk off the President's face, one would think that two harrowing stories by Timothy M. Phelps, published on Thursday and Friday in New York Newsday, were more than enough to do the trick. These reports chronicled the rise of sectarian violence, and palatable loss of religious and intellectual freedom, in Southern Iraq.

As Phelps reported in his August 26, 2005 piece, “In new Iraq, a shaken faith”:

“For Yousef Lyon and other Christians in Basra, the downfall of Saddam Hussein has meant a terrible loss of religious freedom.”

"The social club where Lyon and his friends would gather in the evening to play dominoes, where families danced or listened to live music on holidays, is closed. Wedding celebrations are held quietly at home.”

"Of course, during the Saddam regime it was better," said Lyon, 40, a member of the city's small Armenian community. "Now we are afraid from the religious parties that maybe they will throw a bomb at us."

"Not just the Christians, but many of the city's minorities – from obscure sects like the ancient Sabeans to the Sunni Muslims who used to run Iraq and still predominate in the rest of the Arab world – live in fear of the hard-line Shia religious parties and their militias that now rule Iraq's second-largest city."

"Freedom has been curtailed for women, too. Several decades ago, almost no woman in Basra covered her head. Now, they all do, under fear of harassment or worse. Women working for foreign companies or governments, and those considered to have loose morals, have been marked for death by the militants – two Iraqi sisters who worked in the laundry at the American compound in Basra were assassinated last year."

In an August 25, 2005 story, "Deadly place for Shias", Phelps reported on the murder of a university professor, and on the campaign of terror being waged by members of religious militia: “The day before, the body of Jumhour el-Zergany, his university mentor, had been found dumped alongside the road. Zergany had been tortured, his arms broken, before his tormentors finally put three bullets in his head. His crime, the professor said, was that he had converted years before from Shia to Sunni Islam and had dared to hire religious Sunni professors in the history department that he chaired.”

“A police van was seen by witnesses to have stopped Zergany's car at the time of his disappearance, and police vehicles and sometimes men in police uniforms have been involved in others of the hundreds – perhaps as many as 1,000 – assassinations in Basra in the past 18 months.”

“It is not just Sunnis who are being targeted in this majority Shia city, the professor said, but other Shia as well. All professors – particularly those interested in politics, like himself – are in danger. And not just professors, but judges, and doctors and journalists. And politicians who are seen as secular alternatives to the clergy now in power. And those, especially women, who work for foreigners. And Christians.”

“U.S. and Iraqi sources say it is often police intelligence officers who commit the killings. British forces, which patrol this region, made a deal to integrate the religious militias here into the police in return for the militias' disbanding. But they never stopped serving their former masters, the Shia clerics who lead the political parties now in power."

I urge everyone to read these two disturbing reports from the front lines in their entirety. They offer no answers, but should prompt every sensible American to to ask themselves two important questions:

One, do many ordinary Iraqis quietly wish that Saddam were back in power? Two, was the ultimate establishment of a Shiite theocratic state in southern Iraq the noble cause that President Bush asked Casey Sheehan to die for?

I submit that this latter question needs to be publicly asked, and asked again, and again, until it's been satisfactorily answered. Cindy Sheehan has tried. But so far President Bush has chosen to duck her challenge, and emotionally cut and run. So let me now join the Camp Casey chorus, and pose a few questions that I'd argue the American people have every right to have answered.

Should American soldiers continue to die to protect the right of Shiite clerics to impose their will on the people of Basra?

Will the resulting government in these Southern provinces be any more reflective of "American values" than was Saddam Hussein's regime?

If this regime was never likely to reflect widely accepted norms for secular democracies in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, then should our soldiers have even been thrust into harm's way in the first place? After having been warned repeatedly that ethnic and religious strife were inevitable in the aftermath of Hussein's removal, the President cannot credibly claim that this turn towards an Iranian-style theocracy in the South was somehow unexpected.

Would the Founders & Framers have considered this a proper use of the blood and treasure of the United States of America? I think not. For instance, the first son of an American President to later assume his father's office, John Quincy Adams, on this specific issue, wrote in 1821:

"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

The second son of an American President to later assume his father's office, George W. Bush, has stationed our soldiers in the crossfire of a bloody religious war, with many perishing so that either Sunni radicals/terrorists or Shiite fundamentalists might gain the legal authority to ultimately dominate the people of Iraq. If there ever was a fight that American military personnel have no business being in the middle of, this is it. And if there ever was a nation-building project that the international community had to agree to patiently pursue together, or not at all, this was it.

President Bush, the time for faith-based spin and self-delusion has ended. The time for honest and forthright answers has arrived. For perhaps for the first time in your life, acknowledge your mistakes. Take responsibility for your actions. And start leveling with the American people.

We can handle the truth. We need to know whether you can handle the truth – about your awful judgment as Commander-in-Chief, about this calamitous war, and about posterity's inevitable condemnation of your reckless Presidency.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on August 28, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.