War Escalates Despite Iraqi Vote on New Constitution

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by Gerry Foley / November 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The real import of the Oct. 15 referendum on the Iraqi constitutional referendum was indicated by U.S. air strikes in the Ramadi area immediately after the vote. The constitution was ratified over nearly unanimous opposition from the Sunni population. The U.S. military trumpeted that it had killed 70 “militants.” Local witnesses said that most of the victims were
uninvolved bystanders.

The Oct. 17 Washington Post reported: “A U.S. fighter jet bombed a crowd gathered around a burned Humvee, killing 25 people, including 18 children, hospital officials and family members said Monday. The [U.S.] military said the Sunday raid targeted insurgents planting a bomb for new attacks.

“In all, residents and hospital workers said, 39 civilians and at least 13 armed insurgents were killed in a day of U.S. airstrikes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, a Sunni Arab region with a heavy insurgent presence….

“At Ramadi hospital, distraught and grieving families fought over body parts severed by the airstrikes, staking rival claims to what they believed to be pieces of their loved ones.”

Ramadi was an area where the call of the most intransigent wing of the Iraqi resistance for a
boycott of the vote was generally followed, although it apparently was not in most other predominately Sunni areas. It was also the scene of recent attacks on U.S. soldiers.

It seems likely that the U.S. military thought that the vote had isolated the hard core of the resistance and opened up the way for indiscriminate air strikes. That was the real danger of the vote for the constitution for the resistance, that it would largely isolate its support to a few majority Sunni areas of little or no economic importance.

Of course, even if the U.S. achieved its objective of politically isolating the resistance, it is unlikely that the armed conflict would end. It is obviously deeply rooted in the Sunni areas, and discontent and the potential for subsequent explosions in other sections of the population would not be removed. But the repression of the U.S. occupiers and their allies could become more extensive and murderous.

The vote on the constitution had the logic of an ethnic civil war. Kurds and Shiites who voted backed the constitution almost unanimously, if the announced results are correct. The “yes” vote in Kurdish and Shiite areas was so overwhelming that it forced the election authorities to investigate, following the international rule that any result over 90 percent is suspicious.

But the results among the Sunnis who voted were also over 90 percent, in that case, against the constitution. Thus the ethnic and sectarian polarization seems almost total.

In the Shiite community, even Moqtada al-Sadr, a violent opponent of the U.S. occupation and any political solution it supports, did not openly call for a “no” vote.

Moreover, al-Sadr’s essential base is in the Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad, which would not be benefited by the clauses of the constitution that grant autonomy to the Shiite south and the Kurdish north. In fact, the clauses would threaten them as much as the Sunnis, most of whom also live in the oil-less center of the country. These clauses were the focus of the opposition of the Sunni politicians.

But apparently the line of sectarian mass murder against Shiites followed by the Zarqawi wing of the resistance, reinforcing the old grudges of the Shiites against the discrimination and repression they suffered at the hands of the mainly Sunni Saddam Hussein regime, inspired a circling of the wagons among the Shiite population that even al-Sadr did not dare to oppose.

Most of the reports of the election in the major U.S. and British newspapers stressed that Shiite and Kurdish voters were uncritically following the direction of their community leaders, nationalists in the case of the Kurds, clerics in the case of the Shiites, to vote for the constitution.

In this second election under the occupation, the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi government has announced that participation was higher than in the first election, essentially because this time a large section of the Sunnis voted (perhaps a majority), whereas they virtually totally boycotted the first election. They voted because they had a chance to block adoption of
the constitution if they could muster a two-thirds majority against it in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces, four of which are predominately Sunni.

They did get a two-thirds “no” vote in two provinces. They failed in the other two majority Sunni provinces. But it is there that the question of vote fraud assumes a special importance.

It is possible that the Sunni politicians came close to their goal. However, blocking the aspirations for autonomy of the southern Shiites and Kurds would be a Pyrrhic victory. With the central state machinery and army destroyed by the U.S. invasion and occupation,
there is no way that Sunni politicians can force the Kurds and Shiites to accept a new unitary state. These formerly repressed groups will inevitably go their own way in the parts of the country where they predominate.

The only force that could compel the Kurds and Shiites to accept unitary rule is the U.S. Army, and it is hardly likely to do that since its ability to sustain the occupation depends on a tactical alliance with Shiite and Kurdish leaders.

On the other hand, the U.S. rulers do not want to turn the Sunni leaders away entirely empty handed, because they need them as a counter-weight to the Shiite religious parties that are oriented toward an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to the Kurdish leaders—whose real objective is an independent Kurdistan that would be an anathema to Turkey, the
most important ally of the U.S. in the region. So, the U.S. rulers play a juggling act, and the Kurdish leaders have to play one too.

The Washington Post reported Oct. 13: “Many Kurds believed the January elections marked the first step toward establishing Kurdish independence and separating their region from Iraq. Instead, some Kurds complain that their political leaders have sold them out by pushing for a federalist system of government.

“In an interview Wednesday in the village of Salahuddin, the headquarters of the KDP and its
leader, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, Merani, said political leaders were well aware of what they were up against. ‘I know every single Kurd wants independence,’ Merani said. ‘This is a goal you have to struggle for—but when the time comes.’”

The political forces most committed to a tactical alliance with the occupation are the Kurdish
nationalists, because after the U.S. allowed Saddam to defeat the Kurdish uprising in 1991, it did interpose its power between the Kurdish populations and the Iraqi dictator’s genocidal intentions. But the Kurdish leaders’ experience should have taught them that they could not trust the U.S. rulers, who abandoned them in 1975 and exposed them to the worst defeat in their history.

However, the Kurds make up only 20 percent or less of the population of Iraq. Washington’s most important tactical allies are the Shiite religious leaders, since the Shiites make up 60 percent of the population. But these leaders want religion to be the main force in Iraq and they are, dangerously from the U.S. point of view, drawn toward the theocratic populist regime in Iran.

The U.S. rulers have repeatedly warned the Shiite clerics that they will not accept clerical rule in Iraq or an alliance with Iran. But in order to maintain their alliance with the clerics, they
accepted Islamist features in the constitution that dismayed secular Iraqis, and in particular those interested in women’s rights.

The constitution’s bows to “Islamic principles” create perilous ambiguities about what sort of law is going to be followed in the state being set up under the aegis of the U.S.-led occupation. There is already abundant evidence, for example, that Islamist rule has been imposed on the Basra region in the south. On the other hand, the election results point to a new problem for the Shiite clerics allied with the occupation. No major forces in the Shiite community opposed their calls to vote “yes” but the Shiite vote was notably less than in the January elections.

Analyses of the low Shiite turnout in the international press pointed to a growing
disillusionment among Shiites with the government dominated by the Shiite religious parties.
An article in the Oct. 17 Washington Post noted that the dominant Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, had not made as strong a call for voting for the constitution as he did for voting in the January elections.

Interestingly, the article quoted a local Communist Party leader for an explanation of Sistani’s apparent lukewarmness and the tepid response of the Shiite voters: “Muhammed Hamuzi, secretary of the Najaf branch of Iraq’s Communist Party, one of the country’s oldest political institutions, said he believed the marjiya [Shiite religious authorities] were withdrawing from politics because they feared their reputation had suffered from involvement in the last election.

“‘The government that came out of it has failed. I am not saying that people do not still follow the marjiya, because they do, but clearly in this referendum many people did not follow their
instructions, even Sistani’s,’ Hamuzi said.”

The Communist Party opposes the armed resistance and participated in the Governing Council set up by the U.S. occupation authorities. The CP has historically been a major factor in Iraqi politics, and most of its members have come from the impoverished Shiite
community.

Other press reports quoted ordinary Shiites to the effect that the failure of the government to respond to their economic problems made them indifferent to the question of the constitution. That indicates the basic obstacle to the success of the U.S. in stabilizing the country.

The privatization forced on Iraq by the occupation authorities and the opening up of the country to imperialist plundering is inflicting hardships on the population for which no relief is in sight.

The material distress of the population maintains seething discontent regardless of the ups and downs of the attitude of different segments of the population to the armed resistance.

It remains to be seen even if the show trial of Saddam Hussein, postponed now a month after its first session, will distract many Iraqis for long from the day-to-day miseries inflicted on them by their imperialist overlords and their local clients.

Moreover, the Iraqi army and police forces, which the U.S. occupiers are building up and which they tout as the solution to the problem of the resistance, seem to be more and more identified by the Sunni populations as Kurd and Shiite militias under a different uniform.

The Oct. 13 Christian Science Monitor reported a conversation with a Sunni merchant in the Adamiya neighborhood of Baghdad: “‘Really, I am afraid,’ says Iyad Ahmed, a Sunni who sells paint and hardware supplies in a shop he is considering closing because of attacks on his street. … ‘The Iraqi soldiers are not normal soldiers. They come from the [Shiite political] parties … they come in the clothes of police and kill people.’

“He charges that his cousin’s son was taken by Iraqi security forces, and that he found him dead at a hospital with signs he had been beaten. ‘I asked the neighbors what happened and they said he was always talking to people about Sunni and Shiite. Only speaking!’ exclaimed Mr. Ahmed. ‘After this I thought the problem [of Sunnis being targeted] in Iraq was very bad.’”

An accumulating number of bodies of both Shiites and Sunnis, apparently murdered execution style, fuels fears in both communities of sectarian warfare. Among Shiites these apprehensions are exacerbated by the declared policy of the Zarqawi wing of the Sunni
Islamist resistance of targeting Shiite civilians indiscriminately.

In fact, conflict has been growing between Zarqawi and the majority of the resistance. Recently, the U.S. authorities contentedly watched a fight between Zarqawi’s forces and Iraqi tribes in the area of Qaim near the Syrian border. But it turned out, apparently, that the Arab tribesmen were no match for the highly trained, dedicated, and well-equipped guerrillas of
al-Qaida.

With the resources and determination it has, the Zarqawi group is a difficult partner or rival for the Iraqi resistance groups. In fact, the murderous attacks on Shiite civilians identified with al-Qaida have multiplied.

It may be that even the bin Ladin leadership has become worried about their political effect. The U.S. authorities claimed to have captured a letter from Ayan al–Zawahiri, bin Ladin’s second in command, criticizing the tactics of the Zarqawi group. The Iraqi al-Qaida has denounced it as a falsification. But given the disastrous effects of these attacks and
outrages, it seems credible that the central al-Qaida leadership would be worried by them.

Al-Qaida does pursue a larger objective than the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. It aims at the
creation of a pan-Islamic state in the Middle East, a new caliphate modeled on the Baghdad caliphate of the Islamic golden age.

It is possible that this objective has absorbed some of the aspirations for a pan-Arab state that were a major factor in Iraq after the 1958 revolution. The conflict between the immediate goals and interests of the anti-imperialist revolution in Iraq and the aspirations for pan-Arab unity was never really resolved.

The aspiration for some sort of unity of the oppressed people of the Middle East against imperialism is undoubtedly a powerful one. But neither religion nor Arab ethnicity is likely to provide the solution. A more effective formula would be based on economic interests—i.e., a socialist federation of the Middle East, guaranteeing religious freedom and national self-determination to all the peoples of the region. While the relative political success that the U.S. and its allies have scored with the vote on the new constitution will not dry up support for the resistance, it has increased the dangers the Iraqi fighters and people face.

New anti-imperialist and anticapitalist leaderships need to emerge, which will find more effective political formulas for mobilizing resistance to the projects of the imperialists in the region. One of them would be a perspective of regional unity against imperialism based on common economic interests and not divisive ethnic or religious identities.

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