BAGHDAD â€” A month before Iraq holds elections, Washington and the government it backs in Baghdad find themselves battling for credibility, rather than being able to tout progress towards democracy and human rights.
With the discovery of a torture bunker at Iraq’s interior ministry in Baghdad, and the admission that US forces used burning phosphorus weapons during their assault on Fallujah a year ago, which officials had earlier denied, both parties are struggling for legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis, analysts say.
The latest setbacks risk further undermining the case the United States made for going to war, more than 2-1/2 years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in an invasion whose authors said it would spread democracy to Iraq and beyond. Instead, the US military still no nearer to defeating a bloody insurgency.
The revelations about the torture facility may also taint the poll set for December 15 by aggravating sectarian divisions.
“It’s extremely damaging,” said Abdel-Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper and a frequent commentator on Iraq, referring to the torture bunker and the use of white phosphorus munitions in the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah.
“It’s the worst nightmare scenario for the Americans and the new rulers of Iraq because it undermines all their propaganda against the old regime,” he told Reuters in London.
“Saddam’s regime never pretended to be democratic or a champion of human rights. But the Americans are supposed to be the leaders of the free world, while those practising torture represent the new Iraq, which is supposed to be democratic and defending human rights.
“How can they face their people? They should be ashamed.” The Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite Islamist who will struggle to hold on to his position after the December elections, has promised a full investigation into what went on at the secret underground prison.
He said he was shocked by the discovery of more than 170 men inside, most of them showing the effects of malnutrition and torture. Almost all were members of the Sunni Arab minority, which broadly backs the insurgency but has also repeatedly been targeted by Shiite militias linked to the government.
At the same time, Sunni insurgents attack Shiites almost every day, with car bombs, assassinations and kidnappings.
Washington is keen to bring the Sunnis into the political fold after they largely boycotted elections in January, leaving themselves marginalised. The hope is that political engagement will sap support for the insurgency and let US forces go home.
The discovery of the bunker, originally by US troops, has put the Shiite-led government on the back foot, and raised Sunni hopes of fairer treatment after months of accusing Shiite militias and police “death squads” of targeting them.
However, any political benefit emerging from the discovery of the prison for the Sunnis is overshadowed by the growing lack of trust Iraqis feel for their US-backed government, and in US forces themselves following the phosphorus admission.
“They promised transparency and honestly in Iraq but that was abandoned,” said Hazim Naimi, a political scientist at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, referring to the Americans.
“These new servants (the Iraqi government) didn’t fulfill their commitments to maintain and respect human rights either… they followed the same road as Saddam’s former regime.” While the Americans discovered the interior ministry bunker, and have expressed their shock and outrage that such detentions were going on, it has done little to improve their standing with Iraqis, who clearly remember events at Abu Ghraib prison.
And the latest admission, following earlier denials, that US forces did in fact use incendiary white phosphorus munitions in Fallujah last November has also hurt credibility. While not classified as a chemical weapon, white phosphorus is an incendiary substance can melt through skin and clothes.
International conventions ban its use in civilian areas.
For some analysts, the fact it was used in Fallujah is merely the latest evidence undermining the US venture in Iraq.
“It all adds up to ammunition you can use against the US and Britain and about their aims in the region,” said Rime Allaf of Britain’s Royal Institute for International Affairs.
“Talk of democracy sounds very lame. They are losing influence,” she added.
The weeks running up to the election could prove crucial, not just for relations between the Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni Arab minority following the bunker affair, but also between Washington and Iraq as pressure mounts at home for US troops to withdraw and for Iraqi forces to take over.
The factor linking those two is the insurgency, and Atwan, the editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, believes recent events could fuel it. “The insurgents will point to this and say this is the democracy and human rights they are talking about in the new Iraq… It will encourage some people to join the insurgents.”