Oct 21, 2005
The more the 30-month-old U.S. occupation of Iraq spins into bloody chaos and civil war, the more the Bush administration produces fantasies about “bringing democracy” to Iraq. With the October 15 vote on a new constitution, Bush hit a new high, bragging about “incredible political progress” in Iraq and a “momentous time in the history of the Middle East.” As on cue, the media sent back pictures of Iraqis voting.
What a sham! The text people were voting on had been finalized only four days before. When the draft had first been presented to the National Assembly in September, 55 issues had not been settled. By the time of the third reading at the beginning of October, they had been sorted out – more exactly, most of the contentious issues had been dropped. Then four days before the vote, a concession was made to the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (one of the local affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood), providing that a simple majority in the assembly to be elected in December will be enough to force an amendment to the constitution, provided it is approved in a similar referendum.
In other words, this constitution, which is supposed to stabilize the Iraqi political framework, will inevitably become a permanent political football between the rival factions.
None of this is very surprising. After all, the January 30 elections for the constituent assembly found Bush and most Democrats carrying on about the famous purple fingers Iraqis showed to the cameras – indicating they had voted. Of course, the voters had no idea who they were voting for, since the identity of many candidates was kept secret until the last week before the vote. But what really made that election a farce was the fact that the slates, with only a few exceptions, were unable to campaign unless they were endorsed by the local militia commanders. And since most of them had little or no access to the media, voters had no idea of what they stood for.
As for the constitution itself, the text may contain the usual fine-sounding phrases. It says, for instance, that Iraq is a “sovereign” and “independent” country. But the decisions about what happens in Iraq are not made in Iraq – but in Washington and London. And those decisions happen to be backed up by the 150,000 foreign troops occupying the country. Iraq is neither “sovereign” nor “independent” – any more than it is “democratic.” And the constitution – or whatever it was that people voted on – does not change that fact.
The constitution also refers to human rights and respect for political and civil rights. And to make a point for the U.S. audience, it sets as a goal that women should occupy 25% of the seats in national and provincial assemblies. But the actual status of women is completely left out, except for the following provision : “Iraqis are free to practise matters of personal status in accordance with their religions, sects, beliefs, or choices, and this shall be organized by statute.” (Translation by Juan Cole.)
In other words, the draft contains no legal protection for women as regards personal law. A certain leeway may hypocritically be left for middle class women in the largest towns or in Kurdistan. But the constitution does not provide even a bare minimum of protection for women in the areas ruled by fundamentalists gangs.
The constitution also states that “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” This can be interpreted to mean, for example, that a man can flog his wife or forbid her to have a divorce. If religious law is used to decide matters of inheritance, divorce, alimony and other family issues, that gives men complete power over women. For a country that for decades has been one of the most secular in the Middle East, this is a huge step backwards.
The constitution includes soothing assurances about the fate of Iraq’s much coveted oil industry:“Oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions in the country.” But here’s the real point: the constitution asserts that the oil industry will be run with “the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment” – which is only a veiled way of saying that the oil industry can be privatized, to better enrich the multinational oil companies.
Thus, this constitution, which supposedly lays the groundwork for “democracy,” is actually the founding document of a semi-colonial country, a religious fundamentalist dictatorship, under the direct domination of U.S. and British imperialism and the big oil companies.
It is no coincidence that the opening of the show trial of Saddam Hussein was put in the days right after the voting. Like everything else, the timing was stage-managed by the Bush administration to make the biggest possible public relations splash.
The TV sound-bites about Iraqi elections and progress notwithstanding, life under U.S. occupation has been sheer hell for the Iraqi people. The economy is in a shambles, with very high unemployment and few jobs. There are chronic shortages of nearly everything, including gasoline and other refined petroleum products from this oil-rich country.
Essential services for the population – such as water, electricity and transport – continue to be either extremely unreliable or nonexistent. Public health is in a state of collapse. The war, ethnic violence and skyrocketing crime have all led to an explosion of wounds and injuries, while contaminated drinking water and the absence of basic sanitation has led to a flare-up of diseases. Yet the few hospitals that still function lack the most basic medical equipment and medicines. And there are tremendous shortages of trained medical personnel, even as many qualified nurses and doctors are prevented from working, waiting to be cleared for their past “involvement” with the old Baath Party.
The U.S. has not rebuilt the infrastructure, despite all those promises made after the invasion and the huge sums of money pledged for reconstruction. Apart from a few small projects that garnered a lot of attention from the U.S. news media, the U.S. has spent less than 10% of what had been pledged. And most of that money went straight into the pockets of Western companies, mainly in the security and oil industries, and in the construction or renovation of military facilities.
Rather than rebuild the country, the U.S. military continues to destroy it. Just last month, the U.S. military carried out an offensive against Tal Afar, a city of 200,000 people northwest of Mosul. The U.S. bombed and destroyed homes and neighborhoods, killing or wounding countless people. The U.S. also took away at least a thousand people, sending them to prisons every bit as bad as Abu Ghraib. And Tal Afar is only the latest city the U.S. military has targeted, sowing terror and fear in the population, turning the suffering of ordinary people into an example of what U.S. power can do.
For the Iraqi population, senseless violence from the U.S. military is an every day fact of life. Surrounded by a hostile population in a foreign land, U.S. soldiers fire at will for the slightest reason. Even prominent allies are hit, if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Iraqi general in charge of the serious crimes squad was shot through the head by an American soldier who “mistook” him for a suicide bomber. President Jalal Talabani was not accompanied by his head of protocol on a recent trip to Washington – because the protocol chief was in a Baghdad hospital, after a U.S. Humvee rammed his vehicle on the airport road. If these prominent people are being victimized by U.S. violence, how much more brutal is the U.S. occupation for ordinary Iraqis.
In no way does the Iraqi constitution mark a step in bringing peace and stability to the country. Just the opposite. It can only exacerbate the divisions and the violence that have already been let loose by the U.S. occupation.
Today, all sorts of reactionary forces – various politicians, would-be or actual warlords and clerics – are trying to carve out their own fiefdoms within Iraq. Resorting to armed gangs and private militias based on ethnicity and religion, they have been carrying on struggles to establish their own territories and defend themselves against potential rivals. Some of the gangs and militias operate underground. Others operate openly with their own uniforms. Still others wear the uniforms of various police and military forces – and have the sanction of the U.S. and Britain. Bidding for power (and recognition from the West) they are all playing the religious and/or ethnic card, and this has taken the form of quite violent confrontations and outright terrorism against the population.
The drafting of the constitution and the vote did not calm or lessen these fights. On the contrary, the constitution became a big focus for more intractable power struggles. Thus there was a significant increase not just of suicide bombings, but also of sectarian attacks against the Shiite and Sunni populations, resulting in enormous casualties on all sides. Apart from the Sunni-based factions, most of which have been opposed to the constitution from the beginning, knowing they were bound to lose out to the Shiites and Kurds, the coalition of Shiite religious parties is itself beginning to split in three: one faction opposes any form of federalism; another favors a southern “Shialand” enjoying the same right to self-determination, and therefore possible independence, as Iraqi Kurdistan; a third faction seeks to establish itself as a counter-weight to both the Kurds and the Sunnis in a federal Iraq. Behind these differences among the Shiite factions, as well as between the Shiite faction and the Kurdish and Sunni factions, lurks the issue of who will control the oil bounty and in what proportion.
Not only is this fighting going on under the noses of U.S. and British forces, it is often being carried out by the very police and military units that the U.S. and British have put together, armed and equipped. Tom Lasseter, a Knight-Ridder reporter, who was embedded inside a so-called elite unit of the “new” Iraqi army, described how this unit, made up mostly of Shiite troops, openly told him about taking revenge on the minority Sunni population.
By using the Shiite militias as a kind of shield during all major offensives against the Sunni resistance in the West and North-West, the U.S. generals have definitely managed to build a war of blood between these troops and the Sunnis. But this can only have been intentional; just as it was when the Kurdish militiamen integrated into the army were used against the Sunni resistance in the Mosul area after the crackdown on Falluja.
Rather than bringing stability and peace, as the U.S. occupiers promised, the occupation has pushed the country into chaos and the prospect of a terrible civil war.
And for what? To drive a wedge into the middle of an oil-rich region where imperialism – already weakened by the downfall of the Shah of Iran at the end of the 1970s – is today threatened with the loss of another long-standing supporter, the Saudi regime, which shows signs of wearing out. After the Iran-Iraq war, followed by the Gulf War and the U.S. blockade, Iraq was a convenient target for the U.S. to reassert its will in the area. But it is really the whole of the Middle East which is targeted – with its oil, gas, markets and labor power. And it is around the necks of the masses of the whole Middle East that the noose of capitalist exploitation is being tightened.
By every indication, the U.S. public has long since stopped buying into the lies justifying the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The bad news may be buried in the back pages; the deaths of U.S. troops almost disappears from sight. And Bush may continue to entertain himself with fantasies about “democracy” and “freedom.” But the opinion polls, for what they are worth, now report that two-thirds of the U.S. population believe the Iraq war was not worth the price paid, that is the loss of life.
Certainly, vocal opposition to the war has grown. When the mother of a soldier slain in Iraq tried to confront President Bush this summer at his ranch, she was not treated as just some “kook” – as the papers tried to portray her, and as she might have been seen in an earlier period. She was greeted by a groundswell of support, especially from military families who either joined her or said that she expressed what they felt.
Even the AFL-CIO, which has always supported U.S. wars, felt compelled in its recent convention to take a position vaguely critical of the war – if very ambiguous in its demands for U.S. troops to be brought home “rapidly.”
The demonstrations against the war on September 24th were the largest since the war began. It’s difficult to separate out the impact on that turn-out made by popular anger over the government’s handling of hurricane Katrina only a couple of weeks before. But almost certainly, the really strong reaction against the government over Katrina was in part conditioned by the sentiment against the war. We heard many people link the two. And this demonstration saw the participation of more former soldiers and families of soldiers than ever before.
Bush presented himself as unswayed by the September 24th demonstrations. Perhaps. But behind those demonstrations lies a more important reality: the difficulties faced by the U.S. military with new recruitment and re-enlistment. Among the U.S. troops themselves, there is growing disaffection for this war. That disaffection, if it grows and becomes more pronounced, can be what forces the issue.