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More Milestones in Iraq

27 October 2005

More Milestones in Iraq

 By Gwynne Dyer

There’s not much industry in Iraq any more, but one industry is thriving: historical milestones. It came up with two new ones just last week: a brand new constitution, and the 2,000th American soldier to die in Iraq. But just as with the country’s other main product, turning points, Iraqi milestones are not quite as solid as they seem.

Take the constitution. It took an astonishingly long time to count and recount the votes until the results finally came out right, but ten days after the referendum on 15 October, the Iraqi authorities announced the glad news. Only two of the country’s eighteen provinces, Anbar and Salaheddin, had voted against the constitution by more than a two-thirds majority, so it had passed. If a third province had done the same, it would have failed — but miraculously, the third province that seemed certain to do so, didn’t.

Like the other two, the third province, Nineveh, has a Sunni Arab majority. Sunni Arabs are almost all hostile to the new, American-backed federal constitution, which they see as the gateway to civil war and artition. In Anbar, where practically everybody is Sunni Arab, 97 percent of the voters said no to the constitution. But in Nineveh, where 68 percent are Sunni Arabs, the vote-counters finally declared that only 55 percent of the voters had said no, which fell short of the two-thirds threshold to reject the constitution. How odd.

It is particularly odd because most of the other people in Nineveh province are Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, Yezidis and Turkmens who also strongly opposed the constitution, mainly because of its strong Islamic flavour. Only the Kurds in Nineveh, a mere 8 percent minority, supported it.

But in the end it hardly matters that the constitution probably had some unofficial help in getting ratified, because there is no longer an Iraqi state to be ruled by it. There are government ministers in Iraq, and even an army of sorts (though up to half its personnel are fictional, invented solely to justify their pay-cheques), but there is not a state.

In Iraq in 2005, each ministry is the private fief of the party that controls it, not an obedient branch of a central government. Most officials and soldiers are stealing all they can, for they know that their present jobs will not exist in a few years’ time. The kidnapping-for-ransom phenomenon has got so bad that the Iraqi middle class is emigrating en masse to Jordan. And through it all slip the fighters and bombers of the resistance, killing almost at will.

Which brings us to last week’s other milestone, the 2,000th American soldier to die in Iraq. For months this moment has been built up in the Western media as the time when the American public might at last mobilise against this lost war fought for the wrong reasons. But I listened carefully all day and I didn’t hear a single tectonic plate move.

There are three reasons for the silence. One is that most of the Americans who are dying in Iraq are poor people’s kids, and most poor people don’t know how to organise and network politically. If there is no draft (conscription) to threaten the lives of middle-class kids, there won’t be a big anti-war movement.

Two is that two thousand dead soldiers (and 15,000 injured soldiers, half of whom have lost a limb or their sight or their mind) is not really all that many in a country whose population is nearing 300 million. More than two thousand Americans will die on the roads this month. More than two thousand Americans will die of gunshot wounds this month without ever leaving the United States.

Three is that the so-called troubles of the Bush administration — indictments, investigations, and nasty rumours about various senior Republicans in the Congress or the White House — actually distract attention from the real disaster, which is not happening in Washington at all. The administration’s spin-doctors don’t mind. By all means, let us talk about the alleged but arcane iniquities of Karl Rove, and not about the brutal realities of Iraq.

Let’s talk about the reality anyway. The British Ministry of Defence paid some local academics to survey Iraqi public opinion some months ago without telling them who their client actually was. So the pollsters delivered a truthful report — which said that 45 percent of Iraqis support attacks against “coalition troops” (mostly Americans and British), and that fewer than one percent believed that foreign military involvement was helping to improve security in Iraq.

About 20 percent of Iraq’s population are Kurds who want independence and see the US occupation as their best chance of getting it. They will back almost anything America wants in Iraq. So to understand Arab opinion in Iraq, you have to subtract Kurdish opinion — and then you see that practically all Arabs in Iraq, both Shia and Sunni, and not just 82 percent of “Iraqis”, are “strongly opposed” to the presence of foreign troops. Almost two-thirds of Arab Iraqis, not just 45 percent of “Iraqis”, believe that attacks on occupation troops are justified.

The game is over. It’s time to go home. But you know they won’t.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 nd 4. (“Like…supported it”)

Iraq Referendum Blues

6 October 2005

Iraq Referendum Blues

By Gwynne Dyer

First they flipped, and then they flopped.

Last week, the Shia Arab and Kurdish parties that dominate the transitional government of Iraq tried to rig the outcome in the constitutional referendum on 15 October by sabotaging the voting in the four provinces where Sunni Arabs are the majority. The original voting rules said that if three of those four provinces voted against the new constitution by a two-thirds majority, it would fail. Instead, the ruling Shias and Kurds declared that it would pass unless two-thirds of all the registered voters in those provinces — and not just two-thirds of the people who actually voted — rejected it.

That was an impossibly high hurdle, designed to make sure that Sunni votes could not block the new constitution. It was so obviously unfair that even the United States, which desperately wants the constitution to pass, brought huge pressure on the Shia-Kurdish government to reverse its course. So last Wednesday the Baghdad government announced that the old counting rules would be reinstated. It probably doesn’t make any difference.

It doesn’t make any difference because the Sunni Arabs were unlikely to be able to muster a two-thirds majority against the constitution in three of those four provinces anyway. In three of the four — Nineveh, Salahuddin and Diyala — there are substantial Shia and other minorities most of whom will vote “yes”, so practically every Sunni would have to vote “no” to reach the two-thirds majority.

They are very unlikely to do that, because the insurgents who dominate those provinces have demanded a boycott of the referendum, not a “no” vote against the constitution — and they have threatened to kill anyone who does vote, so a great many Sunnis will stay home on 15 October.

Only in the western province of Anbar, where practically everybody is Sunni Arab, is a “no” vote assured. So the constitution will probably pass after all — and it still won’t make any difference.

The resistance is concentrated in the Sunni-dominated central provinces to the west and north of Baghdad because the Sunni Arab minority of Iraq are the only part of the population that has a strong sense of pan-Arab nationalism. They will not accept the legitimacy of a constitution that was ratified only by the Kurds of the north (who have no interest in Arab politics and want a separate Kurdish state in the long run) and by the Shia Arabs of the south (who look more to their fellow Shias in Iran than to the Sunni-dominated Arab world).

When the United States invaded Iraq two and a half years ago, the Bush administration was blissfully unaware of these complexities. The post-war planning, to the extent that there was any, seemed to consist of four simple steps:

Phase One: Sweep up the flowers strewn at the feet of American soldiers.

Phase Two: Reconstruct the economy (Note: Haliburton to have first refusal on all contracts), and privatise the profitable bits into the hands of consortiums headed by US corporations that contributed to the Bush presidential campaign.

Phase Three: Construct fourteen “enduring bases” from which US forces can dominate the oil-rich Gulf region, and install a faithful government led by Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chelabi and Iyad Allawi who have a track record of working with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Phase Four: Hold an election to ratify all of the above. Relax and enjoy.

When initial US illusions about Iraq were blown away by a growing resistance movement and the American occupation authorities were forced to engage with the realities of Iraqi politics, they faced two basic choices.

They could find a new Iraqi strongman drawn from the traditional ruling Sunni Arab minority, and let him run Iraq for them. Or they could work with the Kurds, already their allies, and the Shia Arabs, who would cooperate if they were assured of a free election that would let them use their numbers (about 60 percent of the population) to dominate the country.

The choice was a no-brainer, and by early 2004 the US had made a deal with the Shia leaders to allow free elections. The result, eighteen months later, is a constitution that effectively dismantles the central government in favour of strong Kurdish and Shia regional governments in the north and south that will control almost everything except defence and foreign affairs. Current oil revenues will be shared with the oil-less Sunni Arab central provinces, but revenues from future developments will go to the Kurdish and Shia regional governments.

The Kurds and Shias have got what they wanted, so the constitution will pass. The Sunni Arabs have been shafted, so the insurgency will continue. There is little likelihood that the new Iraqi army, which consists overwhelmingly of Kurdish and Shia recruits, will be able to take over the task of putting down the Sunni rebellion from US forces in the foreseeable future. And when the US finally tires of fighting the “terrorists” and goes home, it is quite possible that Iraq will split in three.

Which could lead to general war in the Middle East, with Iraq’s neighbours in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia all getting drawn into the conflict.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“When the United States…Relax and enjoy”)

Iraq: The Long War

29 May 2005

Iraq: The Long War

By Gwynne Dyer

“One thing we know about insurgencies is that they last from, you know, three, four years to nine years,” said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chefs of Staff, in mid-May. “These are tough fights, and in the end it’s going to have to be the Iraqis that win this.” All quite true, and much franker than what usually comes out of the Pentagon — but he didn’t say WHICH Iraqis were going to win in the end. Perhaps because he doesn’t know.

At the moment the insurgency is on the upswing again. About 750 Iraqis died in May as a result of bomb attacks that mainly targeted prospective recruits and serving members of the US-trained army and police, and more American soldiers were killed than in any month since January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a crisis is approaching. Insurgent activity peaks and falls off again in Iraq in a well-established rhythm, but only four times in the past two years have more than a hundred American soldiers been killed in a single month. This level of casualties is unlikely to force an early American pull-out.

All recent opinion polls show that a clear majority of Iraqis want US forces to leave at once or very soon — two-thirds of Shia Arabs (60 percent of the population) and practically all Sunni Arabs (20 percent) — with only the Kurdish minority wanting them to stay. But that doesn’t have much to do with how long they actually remain. That depends on two things: Washington’s assessment of the likely final outcome, and the Iraqi government’s judgement about whether or not it can survive without American troops.

The present government of Iraq, finally installed last month after three months of haggling over cabinet posts between the United Iraqi Alliance (i.e., the Shia religious parties) and the Kurds, is not just an appointed puppet government like its predecessor. However, the whole US-supervised political exercise is so suspect that only 185 of the 275 National Assembly members bothered to show up to ratify Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister on 3 May, and the Kurdish-Shia Arab coalition is a shotgun marriage that hides deep and fundamental disagreements about the future of the Iraqi state. Moreover, the Sunni Arabs are still frozen out.

The new cabinet contains some token Sunni Arab ministers, but they represent practically nobody but themselves. The Sunni Arab minority, the main support of the current insurgency, overwhelmingly boycotted the election on 30 January and holds only 17 seats in the 275-member National Assembly — and only two Sunni Arabs were appointed to the 55-member committee that is to write Iraq’s permanent constitution. Yet there is no hope of ending the insurgency unless the Sunni Arabs as a whole are reconciled to the new dispensation.

At the moment, the Sunni Arabs do not have a credible collective leadership with whom the government could negotiate even if it wanted to, and there’s not much point in trying to negotiate with the insurgents, either: some 38 different groups have claimed attacks against US troops. Nor will sealing the frontiers help, as the great majority of the insurgents are Iraqis moved by some combination of nationalism, Islamism, and/or Baathism. (The International Institute for Strategic Studies recently estimated that there are between 20,000 and 50,000 insurgents, organised in some 75 separate units.)

Another election might ease some of the strains if substantial numbers of Sunni Arabs chose to participate next time, but it is far from clear that they would, and in any case the timetable is slipping fast. Current deadlines foresee completion of the new constitution by 15 August, a referendum on it in October, and new elections in December (assuming that the referendum says “yes”), but three months were lost in haggling between Kurds and Shias over government jobs and now that schedule is most unlikely to be met. In fact, it will be surprising if they can even agree on a new constitution by the end of the year — and Sunni Arab views will scarcely be represented at all.

So the violence will probably continue at around the current level for the next six to nine months at least, and beyond that the future is simply unforeseeable. Whether you choose to call this a civil war or not, the fact is that almost all of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs, while the new Iraqi army and police forces are overwhelmingly Shias and Kurds. So long as the insurgency continues, the Shia leadership is unlikely to demand the immediate departure of American troops — and so far, the US still seems determined to stay.

It is a long time since the early days of the occupation, when US officials spoke airily about a prolonged occupation of Iraq and only very gradual moves towards putting power back into Iraqi hands, but they have (deliberately or accidentally) created a situation in which key Iraqi players depend on their continued presence. Nor is there any sign that Washington has yet given up its plans for “enduring bases” in Iraq as the strategic centre from which it can perpetuate its military domination of the oil-rich Gulf region. This is going to be a long war.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Another…at all”)