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Sunni Arabs

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The Dog Ate My Constitution

17 August 2005

The Dog Ate My Constitution

By Gwynne Dyer

 “Ahmed, where’s your homework?”

 “The dog ate it, Miss. I had it all done, honest, but it was lying on the table this morning, and then the dog…”

 “That’s all right, dear. Take another week and give it to me next Monday.”

 The teachers in Iraq are not really so forgiving. The kids rarely have to write a whole constitution, but if they did it would be in on time: Iraqi teachers don’t accept lame excuses, and they don’t give extensions. Whereas the Iraqi parliament and its American overlords are another story entirely.

 The new Iraqi constitution was due to be handed in by 15 August. Then there would be a referendum to ratify it on October 15, and new national elections to produce a somewhat more credible government for Iraq in December. Those deadline were set by the US occupation authorities, who were desperately trying to create some “turning point” after which the country would stabilise and American casualties would start to fall.

 The appointment of an “interim Iraqi government” to replace direct US rule in June 2004 – the so-called “hand-over of sovereignty” – didn’t do the trick. Neither did last January’s elections (which were boycotted by the Sunni Arabs, the core of the resistance movement), nor the emergence of a more-or-less elected government in May after months of haggling. Now Washington’s hopes of a happy ending are pinned on the new constitution.

 “We don’t want any delays. Now’s the time to get to get on with it,” said US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld in late July, and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the president of the current version of an Iraqi government, promised the US ambassador: “There will be no delay.” But there was.

 The Kurds of northern Iraq and the Islamic religious parties who claim to represent the Shia Arabs of southern Iraq have agreed to turn the country into a federal state. That gives the Kurds control over their own area (and their own oil), and a better shot at breaking away to create their own country at some future time. Federalism also suits the Shia religious parties, since it gives them the rest of Iraq’s oil and effective freedom to impose Islamic law over most of Iraq.

 The big losers were the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq, the traditional ruling group, who would end up with no oil and permanent Shia domination. So they rejected the Kurdish-Shia draft, and the 15 August deadline arrived with no agreement. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself and call new elections? No, it just gave the drafting committee one more week to agree on a new constitution. Who could blame them if the dog had eaten their homework?

 President George W. Bush greeted this failure with his customary optimism: “I applaud the heroic efforts of the Iraqi negotiators…Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be resolved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise.” So another week of debate and negotiation passed, but no compromise emerged. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself on 22 July? No, of course not.

 The Kurdish and Shia Arab negotiators simply handed their joint draft over to the National Assembly as the final product. True, there was no consensus on its contents, but they insisted that technically the deadline had been met – and then they gave themselves three more days to work on extracting Sunni Arab consent to the contents. President Bush hailed this as an “amazing event” and declared: “It’s a very hopeful period. The Iraqi people are working hard to reach a consensus.”

 The last deadline expired on Thursday night, and of course the Sunni Arab representatives had still not budged on the issue of federalism. They would be dead men if they did, killed by their own people: “99 percent of Sunnis are unhappy (with the constitution),” explained Saleh al-Motlak, one of their chief negotiators.

 It now seems likely that the National Assembly will not even be asked to vote on the new constitution (the rules only said that it had to be “presented” to the legislators), in order to avoid exposing the depth of opposition to it among Sunnis and secular Shias. The referendum will be held on 15 October as arranged, but the outcome is unpredictable, as it fails if only three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces vote against the constitution by a two-thirds majority. Washington originally wrote that rule in order to give its Kurdish allies a veto, but it gives a similar veto to the four central provinces where Sunni Arabs are the overwhelming majority of the population.

 Even if the constitution is approve in the October referendum, the armed revolt among the Sunni Arabs will continue, because their concerns have essentially been ignored. By Tuesday of last week (23 August), President Bush sounded quite testy about that: “This talk about the Sunnis rising up. I mean the Sunnis have got to make a choice. Do they want to live in a society that’s free, or do they want to live in violence?”

 Unfortunately for him, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq have defined their choices rather differently, and the insurgency will continue regardless of any new constitution.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The appointment…constitution”; and “It now…population”)

Note that the first sentence of paragraph 13 (“It now seems likely…”) is subject to change.

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.

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

Iraq’s Election

31 January 2005

Iraq’s Election and the Coming Shia Revolt

By Gwynne Dyer

Good can come out of evil. A democratic, peaceful and independent Iraq could yet be the final result of the US invasion of 2003, whether that was precisely what the Bush administration intended or not. But it still doesn’t seem very likely.

Sunday’s election was just one more in the series of “turning points” that have been touted in Washington as the beginning of the end of the insurgency against the US occupation: We had the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the “handover of sovereignty” to a revamped but still appointed “interim government” in June 2004, and now this election: all allegedly watershed events, but the river’s flow has not been reversed.

True, the election was not the bloodbath that had been widely predicted. Shia Arabs voted to claim the long-denied dominant position in Iraqi politics that their numbers (60 percent of the population) entitle them to, Kurds voted to reaffirm their current semi-detached relationship to the Iraqi state, and Sunni Arabs mostly didn’t vote. That 57 percent participation figure probably conceals a 75 percent or better rate among Shia Arabs and Kurds and 40 percent or less among Sunni Arabs.

It is mainly Sunni Arabs who are waging the fight against the United States in Iraq right now, and this does not suggest that the “resistance” (al-muqawama) is about to go into a decline. Indeed, Lieut.-Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr., the US army’s top operations officer, predicted last week that some 120,000 US soldiers would have to stay in Iraq for at least two more years — and “a worst-case scenario would be a lot more.”

Add in 30,000 US Marines and Special Forces, 10,000 British troops, and the few thousand remaining odds and ends from the rapidly departing third-country contingents, and that means 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq until at least the start of 2007. In fact, the Pentagon, at least, is still counting on an even longer stay. The media chatter about “exit strategies,” as though the White House were desperately seeking a fast way out of Iraq, but there is no evidence that the Bush administration has yet accepted that the game is up there.

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent defence research group, recently told “The Independent” that he counted twelve “enduring bases” under construction by the US in Iraq. There was other evidence that the US intended a long stay, too: “How many fighter jets does the new Iraqi army have? None. How many tanks does it have? None. What do you call a country with no tanks and no fighter planes? You call it a protectorate. They’re so far away from giving Iraq a normal military you don’t even have industry seminars salivating over the prospect of selling them stuff.”

So official Washington still expects to stay, and almost all Iraqis want US troops to leave quite soon. The votes will be counted within a week or less, the new assembly will meet by the end of the month, and there will be a more or less elected government (minus most Sunni Arab votes) in place by the end of March. That’s when it gets really interesting.

So far, all the Iraqi officials since the fall of Saddam have been American appointees who can be counted on not to bite the hand that feeds them — like Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former CIA agent who returned from exile.with the invading US troops. Now there is the prospect of elected Iraqis who may demand a US military withdrawal. First among them are the Shia parties brought together under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s keadership in the United Iraqi Alliance (the “Shia house”).

These parties have their own militias and most recruits to the new Iraqi army and police force are poor Shias, so they will probably not hesitate to demand an early US withdrawal if they take the leading role in a new coalition government. But they may also be excluded from that government. Secular Shias fear that the mullahs secretly intend to create an Islamic state like Iran despite their constant denials, and they have voted in surprisingly large numbers for Allawi’s group of parties, the Iraqi List. Allawi, too, is Shia but secular.

It is widely assumed that the Shia are keener on an Islamic state than the Sunni, but they are not: a recent poll showed that Sunni Arabs are twice as likely to favour a full-fledged Islamic government as Shia Arabs. This sudden Sunni piety has much to do with the fact that the Sunnis , who are losing their traditional place as Iraq’s ruling minority, are the ones in revolt, and therefore the ones most drawn to radical forms of Islam. But it does raise the possibility of an anti-American alliance between the Sunni rebels and the Shia religious parties.

If Allawi can create a basically pro-American coalition out of his own secular Shia party, bits and pieces of secular Sunni parties, and the Kurds, then Sistani’s “Shia house” could end up frozen out of power. That may be the only way to forestall a demand by Sistani’s allies for an early American departure, so Washington is likely to push it. And if Sistani is frozen out, then perhaps his patience (or that of his younger colleagues) runs out at last. Then the Shia revolt begins in earnest, and America’s security problems in Iraq quadruple overnight.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (*Sunday’s…reversed*;and “Add…there”)

Saddam’s Capture

15 December 2003

Saddam’s Capture: Will It Make Any Difference?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the only reason that some Iraqis have been resisting the American occupation was that they wanted Saddam Hussein back in power, then presumably they will now lose all hope. But that is as blinkered a view of what is really going on in Iraq as the notion that Saddam was personally directing the resistance from his basement hideout near Tikrit.

Even among dedicated Baathists who retained the movement’s original socialist and Arab nationalist ideas, there were few who actually wanted Saddam back in power. Nobody has killed as many Baathists as Saddam, or so comprehensively perverted the movement’s values: he was the Stalin of Baathism. But Stalin’s death did not make devout Communists abandon their faith. On the contrary, it gave them new hope.

By the same token, a Baathism freed of Saddam’s malign influence is likely to be stronger, not weaker: as the only mass political movement in the Arab world that has never knelt before American power, it retains some credibility in Iraq even now. But while the stalwarts of the Baath party are doubtless a key factor in organising the attacks on American and other foreign troops, they are not the main reason that the US occupation faces such strong opposition in Iraq.

The basic problem facing US viceroy Paul Bremer and his collaborators is mistrust: a profound belief among almost all Iraqis that the Bush administration’s motives in invading Iraq were not altruistic. This is not just anti-Americanism. It comes from a perfectly rational conviction that great powers never act out of pure altruism. Indeed, Americans themselves would be outraged if they thought that their soldiers were dying in Iraq for reasons having nothing to do with US national interest, which is why Mr Bush has to keep saying that it is also part of the ‘war on terror’.

Iraqis, however, know that there were no terrorists in their country before the US invasion, and if they weren’t sure before that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, they know it now. So they are left to puzzle out what Washington’s true purposes in their country are — and none of the answers they come up with are reassuring.

The simplest answer, of course, is ‘oil’ — and while that is generally too simplistic an answer, Iraqis are not wrong to believe that they would not have been ‘liberated’ by American troops if they grew carrots for a living instead of pumping oil. They are also aware that the United States had to get its troops out of next-door Saudi Arabia, their main base in the region for the past decade, and that it has now transferred that base to Iraq. So it is assumed in Iraq that any new government created by the Americans will have to defer to US interests on both these issues.

If what Iraq gets in return is a stable and prosperous democracy, many Iraqis would be inclined to pay the price anyway, but as they watch plans unfold for the mass privatisation of the Iraqi economy and see Iraqi contractors frozen out of the reconstruction bonanza in favour of American corporations, their suspicions mount. They also know (because various members of the Bush administration have said so in speeches to American audiences, forgetting that everybody else can hear them too) that Washington intends the new Iraqi democracy to make peace with Israel.

An Iraqi government that does America’s bidding on oil, gives the US military bases, opens the country to American business domination and cozies up to Israel is not one that will enjoy much popular support in Iraq, so Iraqis assume that their new democracy is going to be of the ‘guided’ variety. That is why most Iraqis are sitting on their hands, neither fighting nor welcoming the American occupation. Those who have already taken up arms against the occupation forces, paradoxically, are those who fear that there might really be a genuine democracy in Iraq: the Sunni Arabs.

For many centuries the Arabic-speaking Sunnis who live in central Iraq have been the politically dominant elite of the country, even after the growth of Shia Islam in the south of the country turned them into a relatively small minority (now not much more than 20 percent) of the population. The Turks confirmed them in their position, Iraq’s British rulers took them over wholesale, and their domination of the Baath party kept them in power right down to early this year. But they would lose that role in a genuinely democratic Iraq, where Shias would dominate and Sunni Arabs would be even less influential than the Kurds.

Whether Baathist or not, the Sunni Arabs who comprise the great majority of the current Iraqi resistance fighters are not fighting for Saddam. For those who feared that a successful resistance movement would merely pave the way for Saddam’s return, his capture is as likely to galvanise them into open resistance as to reconcile them to the American occupation.

What we are likely to see in the short term, therefore, is a spike in the violence as the resistance leaders try to show they are still in business, followed perhaps by a lull as they try to exploit Saddam’s capture to broaden their popular base, and then a resumption in the steady rise of attacks on occupation troops. The likeliest long-term outcome, once the US has given up and gone home, is still a civil war and the partition of the country.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“During…Revolution”; and “These three…United States”).