Professor Juan Cole lectured on Iraqi nationalism and the conflict in Iraq Thursday night in the ICC Auditorium as the annual distinguished lecturer for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
Professor Cole is a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
He presented an overview of the current situation and the past conflicts in the region and entertained questions from a capacity crowd that included ambassadors, diplomats, professors and students. Cole first contextualized the Iraqi political atmosphere in light of Sunday's upcoming elections in Iraq.
He recalled British political involvement in the years following World War I and compared it to modern statements by United States officials. Cole emphasized that foreign involvement in the political scene in Iraq is not new.
"As President Bush recently said, ‘Eventually the Iraqis will be able to take off their training wheels,'" Cole said. "This harkens back to language of the 1920s."
Cole briefly discussed the political role of Saddam Hussein and the results of his attempts to oppress Shiites and pro-Iran religious movements throughout Iraq. So far the United States has uncovered "5,000 bodies in graves in Southern Iraq," mostly those of Kurds and members of opposition parties, he said.
He recalled the murder of 60,000 Shiites in the spring of 1991 and stated that "the US could have stopped it, but they didn't. The U.S., by not acting, formed yet another alliance with Sadaam." It is this history of political and ethnic tension that has created the current antagonism in Iraq, he said.
"My argument would be that Iraq in the 1990s was a smoldering place of failed revolutions, so the Americans came in and had the idea of blowing off the lid," Cole said. As evidence of this argument, Cole cited the re-emergence of the Al-Dia'wa party and American support of Shiite leadership in Iraq's political reconstruction.
He voiced concerns about Sunday's elections.
"The elections are happening on Sunday not because the Americans wanted it that way or in that time, but because [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani insisted," Cole said. Sistani is Iraq's highest-ranking cleric and has gained an increasingly-prominent role in the reconstruction process.
Cole also referred to the list of candidates that Sistani compiled for the election.
"It is very likely that the list which Sistani compiled will dominate the parliament," Cole said.
He also voiced reservations about the legitimacy of the elections.
"One problem is that there is not enough security in Iraq to hold elections," he said. "Fifty-three parties have withdrawn because of security issues."
He also said that Sunni Arabs are not likely to participate because of death threats.
The Shiite majority in the parliament, he concluded, poses a problem because it will be in charge of drafting a permanent constitution for Iraq, a process that may serve only "to exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions."