Tony Blair and George Bush were quick to characterise yesterday's election as a triumph of democracy over terror. Bush declared it a "resounding success", while Blair asserted that "The force of freedom was felt throughout Iraq". And yet the election fell so completely short of accepted electoral standards that had it been held in, say, Zimbabwe or Syria, Britain and America would have been the first to denounce it.
Draconian security measures left Iraq's cities looking like ghost towns. The ballot papers were so complicated that even Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader, needed a briefing on how to use one. Most candidates had been afraid to be seen in public, or to link their names to their faces in the media. The United Iraqi Alliance, identifying only 37 of their 225 candidates, explained: "We offer apologies for not mentioning the names of all the candidates ... We have to keep them alive."
The millions of Iraqis, as well as the UN electoral team and the Iraqi election commission staff, who did participate in the process despite the grave risk, deserve our respect. But it was a risk taken in vain. The election was illegitimate, and cannot resolve the rampant insecurity resulting from the occupation. The only way to stop the destruction of Iraq is to end the occupation and enfranchise the Sunnis, who are leading the resistance because they see the US as systematically excluding them from the role they deserve to play in Iraq.
Indeed, this so-called election, with its national rather than provincial voting rolls, was designed to reduce Sunni representation and to anoint US-supported groups who will allow this occupation to continue. A high turnout does not change the fact that this is an illegitimate, occupier's election.
Early in the occupation, the Bush administration recognised that a democratic Iraq would not countenance the strategic goals the war was fought for: controlling the oil reserves and establishing military bases to enable the political transformation the neocons envisage for the Middle East. Even as the US proclaimed its mission as introducing democracy to Iraq, they worked to make sure that the processes they put in place would produce leaders they had picked. The US obtained a carefully circumscribed UN involvement in order to provide the chosen leaders a measure of legitimacy.
It was clear to those of us in Baghdad right after Saddam's fall that no long-term American project there would succeed. The limited self-governance plan was a non-starter because of the transparent control the US exercised over the process. In any event, virtually no Iraqis, not even those benefiting from the US presence, see the superpower as a promoter of human rights and democracy - even before the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, Najaf and Falluja.
Each US-dictated self-governance milestone therefore backfired just like the current election undoubtably will, generating wider support for and bloodier attacks by the insurgency. The first devastating attacks on the foreign presence in Iraq, for example, came soon after the US selected the Iraqi Governing Council: first the Jordanian mission, then the UN's Baghdad headquarters, were blown up.
In its search for greater legitimacy for its preferred Iraqi leadership, the US has avoided the UN security council, since most of its members abhor what is being done to Iraq. The US has instead chosen to work with individual representatives. The first such UN involvement, when the late Sergio Vieira de Mello headed the UN mission in Iraq, was the most effective. He was able to persuade the then US proconsul, Paul Bremer, that he should appoint an Iraqi Governing Council rather than an advisory body. Even then, the anger about the individuals and groups on this council, and for UN support for it, was palpable in Iraq.
Nearly a year later, in another bid for UN support, Bush assured the world that the interim government would be picked by Lakhdar Brahimi, Kofi Annan's special representative. Brahimi spent weeks in Iraq consulting domestic groups about who they felt should lead the country. But on the day the interim government was to be appointed, a deal was struck by the Americans behind Brahimi's back, to make the CIA-linked Ayad Allawi prime minister.
The US has little popular support in the country. It has, however, won the support of the extremely influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who tolerates an occupation most of his followers hate, with the single-minded sectarian goal of having the majority Shia at the helm of power in Iraq. The occupation has destroyed Iraq and is destabilising the world by exacerbating the deep animosity that most Arabs and Muslims feel for the US. The Bush administration is now provoking the Muslim world by threats against Iran. The rest of the world looks on, mostly helplessly.
Salim Lone was director of communications for Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative in Iraq, who was killed in August 2003
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005