There is a despot in Iraq, ruling with an iron fist from the comfort of his luxury palace on the banks of the Tigris River. He oversees a ruthless military force and a web of repressive domestic "intelligence" thugs that have terrorized Iraqis for decades. His name is not Saddam Hussein; it's L. Paul Bremer.
Some like to call Bremer the governor of Iraq, others politely refer to him as the US Administrator. But what he really is is Saddam's successor. This week, as the US death toll in Iraq rose, as more Iraqi (and Iranian) civilians paid the heavy price of the occupation, Bremer had more pressing issues to attend to. He finally got around to fixing up that shabby old palace of his. He paid an Iraqi firm $27,000 to remove 4 larger than life busts of Saddam's head from the palace compound. "I've been looking at these for six months," said Bremer as the first head was being removed, "so I am delighted to see them coming down. We're sick of them."
In case you might be thinking that the weekend cleaning job at Bremer's riverfront mansion might not be the best use of US taxpayer dollars or that there may be more pressing needs in Iraq like electricity, clean water and education, there is something you have to understand. Bremer is just complying with the law.
"According to the rules of de-Baathification, they have to come down," said Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the occupation authorities. "Actually they are illegal."
Remember back in 1998, as the Clinton administration geared up to bomb Baghdad, when we were inundated with talk of Saddam's palaces. How Saddam lived in luxury, while ordinary Iraqis suffered. He had swimming pools while most Iraqis didn't have clean water. He was usurping Iraq's resources for his own excesses. And on and on.
Bremer and the military commanders he rode into Baghdad with wasted no time in picking up from where Saddam left off as they swiftly occupied the dozens of palaces across Iraq. Out went Izzat Ibrahim from the marbled palace in Tikrit, in came Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division. Out went the Republican Guard; in came the marines. Out went Saddam's administrative offices; in came Bremer's. The US has converted a former Republican Guard resort into-drum roll please - a resort for US soldiers: Camp Relaxation.
But it is not just the high life in lavish palaces that Bremer shares with his predecessor.
Iraqi television has gone from airing the ramblings of Saddam and his deputies to airing the statements of Bush, Bremer, Rice, Rumsfeld and a slew of US military commanders. One American soldier working on establishing the "new" Iraqi media said many of the Iraqi journalists are referring to the US commanders working with them as "Little Saddams."
The US has put scores of Saddam's thugs on the payroll of the new regime. Many of them kept their same positions, just with a new
supervisor: Uncle Sam. And one of the most striking similarities between Saddam and Bremer is that neither of them seems too eager to have democratic elections in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the country's leading Shi'ite clerics have dramatically escalated their demands for direct elections of an interim Iraqi government to take over from the US occupation forces. They want one person, one vote and an end to the era of US-appointments. They want the United Nations to organize and oversee the elections. Seems reasonable enough. The problem is the US doesn't want elections if the "wrong" candidates are going to win.
The forces most opposed to direct elections in Iraq are Washington and the imported "opposition" leaders like the CIA-backed Ahmed Chalabi. The Shi'ite religious leaders are well aware, as many analysts have observed, that if elections were held tomorrow, the religious parties would win. Regardless of their motives, the clerics are calling for democratic elections and it is the US that is putting up the roadblocks.
Washington and its proxies on the Governing Council say that the country is too unstable for fair elections because of the risk of attacks on voters and candidates. They want local caucuses of mostly appointed representatives to select a national assembly, which would then "elect" the leadership.
As the Shi'ite leaders have pressed their case for elections, the US has said that due to a lack of a census, elections would be impossible. Now, The New York Times reports that US officials have just rejected a plan for a quick census of the country's population that would allow Iraq to hold national elections in nine months.
Followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week that there may be direct actions if the US prevents elections. "The time has come for us to get our rights," said Sheik Abdel Mehdi al-Karbalayi, al-Sistani's representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. "I'm not saying there will be military action. Maybe it will be civilian. But there will be instability."
Even the current chair of the US-appointed Governing Council, Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, warned last week that there would be "a real problem in the country" if the US prevented direct elections. "It is not possible that a people who spent decades under oppression and sacrificed so many lives are not allowed to directly participate."
So far the only political campaigning that has been allowed in Iraq was George W Bush's 2 1/2 hour Thanksgiving tour of the Baghdad airport.
From his palace on the banks of the Tigris, Paul Bremer is starting to look like Iraq's version of Katherine Harris. As we learned in Florida in 2000, elections are not a process; they are a question. And there is only one right answer. When Saddam held his last referendum on his presidency late last year, there was just one choice for Iraqi "voters": Yes or no. The way things look now, Iraqis may not even be granted that much of a say in their newly "liberated" country under Bremer.
But not all is lost. At least Paul got rid of those annoying statues of his predecessor's head.
Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent for the nationally syndicated radio and TV program Democracy Now! He spent most of 2002 reporting from Iraq. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.