Iowans seem pretty happy with their quadrennial caucuses. The results are now in and the 2004 presidential election season has been kicked off. Half a world away, however, Iraqi Shiites have launched massive demonstrations against the Bush administration’s plan for caucuses to elect an interim national assembly. Why do Iowans love what Iraqi Shiites hate?

It’s simple: Iowa’s version of caucuses is true grassroots democracy in action, whereas the U.S. occupation authority’s version in Iraq is a sham. Having spent my formative years in Iowa and attended the neighborhood political meetings, I know that any Iowa voter can participate in debating and choosing among the candidates. For example, if my parents, who still live in Iowa, were Republicans or independents and wanted to take part in the Democratic caucuses—because that’s where the action was in 2004—they could change their party affiliation and caucus to their heart’s delight.

In contrast, the Bush administration’s planned caucuses in Iraq are designed to avoid genuine participative democracy—direct elections that the majority Iraqi Shiites desire—because any government so elected might be less U.S. friendly than one created from the well-choreographed caucus process. Without examining the details of the administration’s plan, the American media has treated the caucus versus direct election dispute in Iraq as if it were merely two different ways of bringing democracy to Iraq. Despite the administration’s grandiose rhetoric about invading Iraq to bring democracy to Iraq and to the Middle East, however, its actions to date have indicated a preference for a U.S.-friendly government, rather than a democratic one. When the U.S. occupation authority’s plan for caucuses is examined closely, it is not hard to see why Iraqi Shiites disapprove.

Unlike the Iowa version of the caucuses, open to everyone, participants in the Iraqi version, under the current administration plan, have to be either selected by the Iraqi Governing Council—the hand-picked body of Iraqis fronting for U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer’s rule of Iraq—or chosen by local government officials who are cooperating with the U.S. occupation authority. Of course, the Shiites—with more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population—realize that the Bush administration is afraid of where a democratic election would take Iraq. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Iraqi Shiite leader, has insisted on direct elections and organized large street demonstrations to rally popular support for his position.

The U.S. occupation authority’s response to Sistani’s position is to claim that direct elections cannot be held by July 1—the self-imposed U.S. deadline for appearing to turn over Iraq to the Iraqis—because no census can be taken by that time or voter rolls created. Sistani is skeptical of those arguments and has demanded that the United Nations confirm that a direct election cannot be held by that date.

Sistani’s intransigence and his popularity in Iraq have caused the occupation authority to modify its caucus plan and try to win endorsement by the previously reviled United Nations. Kofi Annan, the U.N.’s Secretary General, eager to get the previously shut out United Nations back into the Iraq game, is already caving to U.S. pressure.

Even if direct elections are not practical before July 1, however, what is so sacrosanct about that date? If the United States really wanted to see democracy in Iraq, more international involvement in the political process could be sought—thus allowing the date for direct elections to be pushed back. But eventual direct elections—to affect a delayed, but genuine, transfer of power to Iraqis—does not suit the occupation authority’s aims. First, with the current guerrilla war still raging in Iraq, the appearance of progress toward Iraqi self-determination is needed before the U.S. presidential election in November 2004.

Second, leaving aside inflated rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East and eliminating the apparently nonexistent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the real purpose of the U.S. invasion appears to have been to get additional military bases to dominate Persian Gulf oil—particularly since Saudi Arabia wanted U.S. forces to withdraw from bases there. Holding direct elections would undoubtedly elect a Shiite-dominated government, which is likely to create much less predictable relations with U.S. occupation forces. Such a government could very likely make the embarrassing request that all U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq—negating the original purpose of the invasion.

But there is a worse possibility. Early unrepresentative caucuses, seen by most Shiites as illegitimate, could ignite a civil war with U.S. forces caught in the middle.

So after an ill-advised invasion and occupation of Iraq, the administration now has no good option. But even if Persian Gulf oil needs military protection (many economists would say that it doesn’t), it has been defended before 1991 without permanent land bases and could be in the future. In the face of continuing guerrilla attacks, the administration would be best advised to abandon its desire for bases in that unstable land and to bring in international supervision for delayed direct elections, which will ensure genuine popular political participation in Iraq. Then perhaps Iraqis will be as happy as Iowans are with their political process.