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Is freedom an American prerogative?

Rasheeda Bhagat

In bombast typical of the State-of-the-Union address, President Bush sent out the signal that he is out to reform not only the Americans who don't toe the line but also the whole world.

THE coalition forces' cup of woes in Iraq continues to spill over, with increasing attacks on its personnel, protest marches and, last but not the least, the growing disenchantment and exhaustion of the soldiers, who have begun questioning what the heck they are doing in Iraq in the first place.

All this obviously has led the Coalition Provisional Authority (CP) headed by Paul Bremer, and the Iraqi Governing Council — which cannot hope to function independently till the coalition forces remain in Iraq — to appeal to the UN to return to Iraq.

The UN has responded favourably to the request. The UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, indicated, after a meeting with representatives from the CPA and the Council, that he was positively inclined towards sending a team of UN personnel to assist in the mammoth task of conducting elections and returning Iraq to self-governance.

The UN had recalled its personnel from Iraq following a suicide bomber's attack on its headquarters last August, which left 23 of its people dead, including its chief of mission in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

After that, even the International Red Cross and several other NGOs had either pulled out their staff or reduced their presence in Iraq. From Day One of the attack on Iraq, the rest of the world has had little doubt about the Bush administration's real intentions in Iraq and has suspected all along that the US had got into the war game for an extended presence in the country, for reasons monetary as well as geographic.

But the unrelenting attacks — suicide bombings, missile attacks, etc. — coupled with the capture of former the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and the coalition partners' abject failure to find any evidence that Saddam indeed had weapons of mass destruction, have forced the Bush administration to rethink its policy on Iraq.

One of the first indicators of this is its decision, following growing pressure from home, to reduce its military presence by about 20 per cent in the occupied country.

The next is its desperate appeal to the UN to return to Iraq. It is ironic the same US had made it amply clear that since the UN Security Council had refused to bless the US-led war against Iraq, it would not be given any significant role, either in planning the reconstruction of Iraq or setting up a new government there.

But the situation on the ground has changed drastically in the last couple of weeks with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most revered Shiite leaders in Iraq, publicly decrying the CPA's plan for putting a transition government in place in Iraq before holding general elections.

The CPA time-table for returning Iraq to self-governance includes having a provisional constitution in place by February, 2004, selecting a Transitional National Assembly by May 2004, and giving it power by June, by which time the CPA and the governing council would be dissolved.

In March 2005 the Constitutional Convention would be elected to draft a new constitution, and, finally, in December 2005, with a new constitution in place, elections would be held and a new government appointed. Small wonder that the Shiite clergy has raised its voice in protest and said enough is enough. With Ayatollah al-Sistani, objecting to this long-drawn-out time-table, and demanding direct elections so that Iraq can return to self-rule, the occupational authorities — which had till now baulked at giving the UN any major role in Iraq — have now suddenly turned to it for help.

On Monday, several thousands of Sistani's followers participated in a protest march held in Baghdad to demand speedy elections in Iraq.

A spokesman of the clergy said he was willing to accept the assessment made by an expert committee sent by the UN to determine whether the ground situation in Iraq is conducive to holding of elections directly without following the long time-table set by the CPA, which has been maintaining that direct elections are not possible under existing conditions.

And, hence, the US is now leaning on Mr Annan to bail it out from the mess in Iraq. The request is for a UN technical mission to be sent to Iraq to advise on the feasibility of direct elections. If this group decides that elections in the short term are not possible, then it will have to recommend alternatives.

The UN team will have to determine where "the technical, political or security conditions exist for general direct elections to take place as early as May this year. Let me state that the UN's sole objective is to help the Iraqi people. We would like to see as broad a consensus as possible develop among Iraqis on what needs to be done to bring about an Iraq at peace with itself and with its neighbours," he has said.

Thereby hangs a tale... of a country's desire to live in peace with its neighbours. Following Sistani' call, the Arabic media has stepped up its demand for elections in Iraq.

One Palestinian paper parodied the Americans' self-proclaimed concern for WMD and branding some nations as forming an "axis of evil" by writing: "The US is preparing itself to establish a new base for its forces on the moon in preparation for an invasion of Mars and other planets... What are the other planets chosen for the US invasion? Are they an axis of planetary evil?"

As far as Mr Bush is concerned, such sarcasm is lost on him. Or perhaps the superpower over which he rules does not believe in taking heed of the ravings and ranting of smaller nations.

And, so, in his 54-minute State of the Union Address delivered on Tuesday night, a supremely confident Mr Bush presented his countrymen a choice between his continued leadership and a return to the "dangerous illusion" that the threat faced by Americans from terrorists — and perhaps the axis-of-evil nations too — had ended.

"We have not come all this way, through tragedy and trial and war, only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same from us."

This brings to mind a comment an Australian economist had made to this writer in a chat in the late 1990s about how almost all American presidents in their second term behave "as though they are out to reform the whole world."

He was talking about presidents in their second term; but here we have one in his first term who is out to effect regime changes, bring democracy to countries that defy the US and twist the arm of anyone who dares to say anything critical of his administration and its policies.

Forget the rest of the world, Mr Bush is out to reform even the Americans who do not toe his line on issues such as gay marriage. In the same Union address, he came down heavily upon court judgments that have opened the door to marriages between gays and lesbians.

He warned the activist judges that if they did not mend their ways, the "the only alternative" would be to bring in a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," he thundered.

Is this not a paradox in a country which claims to respect all freedoms under the sun? Were not the Iraqis `liberated' in the first place so that they could be free of Saddam and enjoy all their freedoms?

Of course, he is going to face a fresh storm of protest for trampling on the fundamental rights of homosexuals. It is a great irony that the American people who endorsed his decision to go to war against Iraq — something that could be gauged by his soaring popularity ratings in the immediate aftermath of the war — have the liberty to move the courts for freedom to follow their sexual preference.

But what about the Iraqi citizens, whose houses can be raided at any time, their vehicles stopped and searched and they themselves subjected to the vilest forms of humiliation and insult? Which courts can they move?

(Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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