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”)