by Gerry Foley / September 2005 issue Socialist Action
With the repeated postponements of the Iraq National Assembly’s deadline for approving the U.S.-sponsored constitution, thunderclouds of potential civil war
darkened over the country.
The internal conflicts in Iraq did offer the imperialists possibilities for playing off one group against another. But increasingly, the U.S. rulers themselves have found themselves caught up in the toils of their intrigues.
And the long shadow of multiplying conflicts in Iraq is undoubtedly one of the factors convincing more and more of the American public that it was wrong to
occupy the country and that the U.S. should withdraw from the Iraqi hornets’ nest. The Gallup poll of Aug. 5-7 showed 56 percent for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq now.
It seemed inevitable that no matter how the fight over the constitution came out, the guerrilla war and other forms of opposition to the U.S. occupation would
increase. That is indicated already by the Bush administration’s decision to send more U.S. troops.
The tensions and unrest within the country were magnified by the tragic stampede of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad on Aug. 31 that resulted in about 1000 deaths, the biggest slaughter since the early days of the U.S. invasion. The crowd on a bridge of the Tigris was panicked by rumors of Sunni Islamist suicide bombers, who have set off explosions several times in Shiite religious processions.
But interviews with survivors in the big press indicate that blame for the tragedy is also being placed on the U.S.-sponsored government for its
incompetent security arrangements.
On Aug. 24, new bubbles appeared in the Iraqi boiling pot with armed clashes between rival Shiite groups—the Mahdi Army of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the militias of the main Shiite parties in the government. On Aug. 25, al-Sadr’s movement mobilized 100,000 demonstrators in various cities opposing the constitution and demanding U.S. withdrawal.
The rebel cleric has consistently insisted that there can be no valid political process in Iraq as long as it is under foreign occupation. The strength of his
support among poor Shiites threatens the U.S. tactical alliance with the senior Shiite clerics like Ali al-Sistani. In particular, al-Sadr has joined with Sunni political groups in opposing the U.S. brokered constitution.
Al-Sadr is an outspoken advocate of unity between Shiite and Sunni in opposition to the U.S. occupation. He led an uprising in the southern city of Najaf in April that coincided with the Sunni uprising in Falluja. Moreover, he has a common interest with the Sunnis in the major dispute over the constitution—that is, the proposed federal structure of the new Iraqi state.
Al-Sadr’s essential base is in Baghdad, in the central part of the country where the bulk of the Sunni population also lives. This region would risk being left high and dry by a federal arrangement that would give a Shiite regional government in the south and a Kurdish regional government in the north control of the bulk of the country’s working sources of oil.
The clashes between the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias seem to have been motivated in part by al-Sadr’s attempt to reopen his movement’s office in
Najaf, where at least a large part of the population opposed his attempt to make the Shiite holy city the fulcrum of an uprising against the occupation. His
choice of a battleground was a strategic error from which he continues to suffer. But the differences over the constitution were undoubtedly also involved.
In the horse-trading over the constitution, an ambiguous deal was struck over the question of where the benefits of the oil go. The agreement is that the oil manna belongs to all the people of Iraq and will be distributed according to the population of the different regions. However, this compromise did not defuse the opposition to federalism on the part of al-Sadr and the Sunnis, who fear that the establishment of regional governments will lead to the break-up of the country, isolating the center.
They fear that the real objective of the Kurds is independence, and with good reason. It was only under heavy U.S. pressure that the Kurdish representatives
gave concessions, including the right of secession in the constitution. The Sunnis, moreover, fear that a Shiite state in the south would come under Iranian influence.
U.S. pressure forced the Iraqi parties in the National Assembly to reach an ambiguous compromise on another of the key issues—the insistence of the Shiite parties and their clerical sponsors on imposing a state based on Islamic law. The draft constitution thus says that no law can be adopted that is contrary to the principles of Islam and no law can be adopted contrary to the principles of democracy.
A Supreme Court was established to rule on these questions, on which clerics may sit but not be the majority. This contradictory settlement assures that
the legal field will remain a battlefield, and the Shiite clerics have the biggest battalions.
Iraqi secularists who had hoped that the U.S. occupation would modernize the country have seen their dreams of “progressive imperialism” explode. Reuters
reported the protests of some Iraqi progressives in an Aug. 14 dispatch: “‘The draft aborts the democratic process Iraqis hoped for and is a big victory for
political Islam,’ said writer Adel Abdel-Amir. ‘Islamic law, not the people, has become the source of authority.’…
“‘Human rights should not be linked to Islamic Sharia law at all. It should be listed separately in the constitution,’ said Safia Souhail, Iraq’s ambassador
to Egypt. The prominent women’s rights campaigner denounced wording that grants each religious sect the right to run its own family courts—apparently doing away with previous civil codes—as an open door to further Islamicize the legal system….
“‘When we came back from exile, we thought we were going to improve rights and the position of women. But look what has happened—we have lost all the gains we made over the last 30 years. It’s a big disappointment.’”
It has never been true that because the imperialist countries are more advanced than those they dominate, they will foster social progress in the latter. In fact, the pattern is that they buttress their domination by relying on conservative, even retrograde social forces in the dominated countries.
The social progress achieved in Iraq was a result of the 1958 anti-imperialist revolution. Saddam turned back the revolution but he was not able to wipe out
all its gains. It is the U.S. occupation that is doing that.
U.S. forces have allowed the most retrograde elements of the resistance to establish Taliban-type regimes in a number of majority Sunni cities. In the Aug. 22 British Guardian, a reporter who had visited the large farming town of Haditha noted that Islamist guerrillas “are the sole authority, running the town’s security, administration and communications.”
Haditha, he said, lies under the nose of an American base, yet it “is a miniature Taliban-like state. Insurgents decide who lives and dies, which salaries get paid, what people wear, what they watch and listen to.”
The Guardian argued that Haditha demonstrated the inability of the U.S. occupation and its client government to effectively control the country. But it
likely also indicates a modus vivendi of some sort. When U.S. commanders think it necessary, they do not hesitate to unleash a holocaust, as they did in
The U.S. big business press and government spokespersons have stressed that Bush and his cohorts are leaning on the Kurdish and Shiite politicians not
to run rough shod over the Sunnis. The usual justification is that the U.S. wants to defuse the insurgency, which has been based mainly on the Sunnis.
Undoubtedly this is a factor. The U.S. is hoping to split the Sunnis politically. But whether or not it succeeds in doing this, it needs the Sunni politicians as a counterweight.
If the imperialists could get the sort of stable and subservient government that they want from a bloc of the Kurds and the Shiites, they could afford to leave
the Sunnis to rot in bypassed sinkholes like Haditha. But it is obvious that Washington does not trust its tactical allies.
The imperialists can also afford to see the constitution defeated in the Oct. 15 popular referendum, if the Sunnis are divided by the campaign. That explains remarks by U.S. politicians and press commentators, and even Shiite politicians, that it would not be so bad if the constitution were defeated, as long as the vote drew the Sunnis into the “political process.”
If all potential Sunni voters actually go to the polls, they would have a good chance of defeating the constitution. They just have to get a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces. And Sunnis are in a majority in four.
But the al-Qaida wing of the resistance has threatened to kill anyone who participates in the election. It has already assassinated three leading Sunni
politicians who were taking part in the negotiations over the constitution.
In the National Assembly elections, the great majority of Sunnis boycotted the vote. But since then, Sunni bourgeois politicians have been calling on their
co-religionists to register and vote.
The likelihood is that the Sunnis will vote, and thereby further isolate al-Qaida and similar groups. And a rejection of the constitution at the polls could open up the way for the formation of a broad front opposing any U.S.-dictated regime. That is undoubtedly the result that the imperialists fear the most.
Furthermore, the wrangling over the constitution is obviously exaggerating the alienation of the Iraqi people from the U.S.-sponsored parliamentary politics.
In the Aug. 19 Guardian Alain Gersh wrote: “Despite the inventiveness of Iraqi engineers, the state’s infrastructure crumbled. Basic services, ministries, power stations and drinking water all became precarious. Corruption spread throughout society. … When the U.S. invaded, Iraq needed only a little push
for the worm-eaten state to collapse.”
The chaos has been exacerbated by the U.S. invasion and the privatization (that is, giveaways to big imperialist corporations) imposed by the occupation.
Against this background, the quarrels of the U.S.-manipulated politicians are adding insult to injury. The patience of most of the Iraqi people is undoubtedly running out.