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Journalist Patrick Cockburn on Iraq and the new constitution:
"All Iraqis see is their lives getting worse"

September 2, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

PATRICK COCKBURN is a correspondent for Britain's Independent newspaper and coauthor, with his brother Andrew, of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, about Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime. His reports, which often appear on the CounterPunch Web site, have been an invaluable source of information on what's really happening in Iraq. Here, he talks to Socialist Worker's ALAN MAASS about the consequences of the constitution meltdown--and where Iraq is headed now.

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GEORGE BUSH and his administration say the new constitution is another turning point in Iraq. Is it?

IT'S VERY difficult to see how this constitution, whether it's implemented or not, is going to do much good, and I think Iraqis think the same way.

Somehow, the U.S. administration sees the constitution as being one more step in a process that will create a credible Iraqi government, under U.S. influence, and U.S. troops can the be withdrawn.

If you talk to people in Baghdad, they worry first of all about just surviving day to day. Electricity is worse than ever, there's a shortage of water, there's fear of terror and kidnapping, the general collapse of any civilized life. So the constitution is not the first thing in their mind.

This is one of a series of things that have been announced by the administration as a turning point in Iraq.

You had the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. Then, in June 2004, you had the supposed handover of sovereignty to Iyad Allawi, as the interim Iraqi prime minister. Then, in January of this year, there were the elections, and now there's the constitution. Each one is seen as a staging post toward a new Iraq. But each time around, the situation in terms of security and conditions gets worse.

These staging posts are primarily designed for U.S. public opinion. Last year, they were designed for U.S. voters in the presidential elections. And what's being produced now as inevitable progress in Iraq is geared toward the mid-term elections in 2006.

I think this is one thing that's sabotaged the administration throughout--their priorities in Iraq are determined by the political impact in the U.S., and not the political impact in Iraq.

WHY DID the U.S. think it would be able to get agreement between the different forces in Iraq?

THE IDEA was that the Kurds would moderate the shift by the Shia religious parties toward Islamic laws and social mores, and that the Shia would lean on the Kurds against federalism. In fact, each has got what they want in some respects.

But I think it's very fragile. At the end of the day, a constitution is just a piece of paper. It depends on people's willingness to assent to it as the rules of the game and to abide by those rules.

But they can't even get the Sunni negotiators--who were effectively appointed by the U.S. and Britain following the January election and forced on the Kurds and Shia--to agree to this. And they don't necessarily represent the 5 million Sunni Arabs in Iraq, so what chance is there of getting that community as a whole to assent to this?

The Sunni community is the base for the insurgency. Even if a lot of Sunni Arabs did assent to the constitution--and there's no sign that they do--then there's no reason to think that the insurgency will die away. They probably have enough of a base to go on fighting for a very long period.

Over the last century, one of the lessons of Iraqi history is that the Kurdish community, which is probably slightly less numerous than the Sunni Arabs, was able to destabilize the country, because it basically didn't assent to the system. So if the Sunni are not on board with this constitution and feel it threatens them, then this is really a recipe for more war, rather than peace.

CAN YOU talk about what's at work behind the provisions in the constitution that encourage the development of what some have called regional mini-states, dominated in the north by the Kurds and in the south by the Shia? Controlling the oilfields, which are located mainly in Shiite and Kurdish areas, seems central in all this.

FIRST, people are beginning to talk as if the positions of the Kurds and the Shia are equivalent. They're not.

The Kurds have almost a century-long history of struggle--for independence if they could get it, autonomy if they couldn't. Ordinary Kurds feel that they're a different nationality. A decreasing number speak Arabic. They're a very distinct community. Most Kurds would like to be independent, even if they don't think that they can get it.

Among the Shia, there are those who think there should be a greater degree of autonomy. But the Shia community is socially and politically much less coherent than the Kurds in the north. There are divisions about an autonomous Shiite area in southern Iraq. It's a much newer idea, with more shallow roots. It will be opposed by a lot of Shiites.

Remember also that Baghdad, which has a population of at least 6 million, is a mostly Shiite city. So is that not going to be part of this Shiite autonomous zone?

WERE THE armed battles last week between Moktada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, and the Badr organization forces loyal to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)--the main party in the new government--a product of these conflicts?

THERE'S BEEN tension and competition between the Mahdi Army and the SCIRI going back a long way.

The Mahdi Army and Moktada Al-Sadr combine religion with Iraqi nationalism much more than the SCIRI. It will be interesting to see what attitude Al-Sadr's organization will take to the constitution referendum. They've always been anti-federalist--it's another aspect of their Iraqi nationalism. Their main poster shows religious notables, and behind them is the Iraqi flag, which doesn't leave anyone in any doubt as to this combination of religion and nationalism.

The SCIRI has a different history. After all, it was partly based in Iran in the 1980s, and it fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. About 80 percent of the Iraqi Shia fought in the Iraqi army against Iran, but the SCIRI fought on the Iranian side, in the Badr brigades militia.

The Shia community is very divided, so it's not too surprising that they're coming into conflict. It's a mistake to think that the Kurds go their way in the north, and the Shia go their way in the south. It's much more complicated than that.

The constitution will become one more aspect of this conflict. The SCIRI did well in the January provincial elections. It controls nine of the provincial councils, but Moktada al-Sadr also did well.

I think you also have to bear in mind that Iraqis are very cynical about the motives of these groups. The SCIRI, in particular, has a reputation for corruption, and the same is true of the Kurdish parties. So if oil revenues are going to be diverted, a lot of Kurds and a lot of Shia will think it's just a new way of somebody stealing money.

AS THE constitution negotiations were playing out, the armed resistance in Iraq seemed to step up its operations. Is this resistance really made up of "foreign terrorists" or "former regime elements," as the U.S. says?

THE MOST important thing in the context is that most Iraqi Arabs don't like the occupation. This isn't true of the Kurds, but it is true of Iraqi Arabs, whether Sunni or Shia.

In Sunni areas, this means that there's a sympathetic environment for groups that previously had marginal support. Consequently, you get what are called Salafi groups--extreme, bigoted Sunni religious groups, often well financed by Saudi Arabia, carrying out the suicide bombings.

Then you also have a medley of nationalist groups, former Baath Party groups, and also basically semi-criminal groups. But I think the thing to bear in mind is that it was the antipathy to the occupation that enabled some of the more vicious groups, who carry out sectarian attacks on Shia, to stay in business.

IS THERE any development of cooperation between Sunni and Shia in opposition to the occupation?

BEFORE THE invasion of 2003, people--in the U.S. and Britain in particular--tended to underplay the degree to which Iraq was divided between communities. Now it's the reverse process--people tend to underestimate an Iraqi nationalism.

In a way, it's very fortunate for the White House that the guerrilla campaign is sectarian and Sunni-dominated, with parts of it hostile to the Shia. There was a moment in April of last year, with the uprising in Falluja and the uprising in Najaf, where you could see the Sunni and Shia of Iraq both becoming more nationalistic in opposing the U.S.

But then, after bomb attacks on Shia civilians, the sectarian divide became much deeper. Whether this will go on that way, I don't know, but it is very deep at the moment.

SOME COMMENTATORS have suggested that the U.S. is encouraging these divisions to the point of encouraging a civil war, with the end goal of seeing Iraq partitioned. Is that true?

IN BAGHDAD, quite a number of different Kurdish leaders--who are the most closely allied with the U.S.--were saying to me that the U.S. policy-makers make one mistake, and a year or two later, to balance it out, they make a mistake in the opposite direction.

The idea exists that that they should encourage fragmentation in Iraq--but that in a way stirs up worse problems. It will stir up nationalist opposition. It will lead to greater intervention by Iraq's neighbors--Iran, Turkey Syria, Saudi Arabia--then at present. This is a recipe for escalating the war rather than reducing it.

I don't think that it's something that's going to work. There is a reason why Iraq is there on the map. Recently, it's become fashionable to insist that Iraq never really existed--that it was just three Ottoman provinces. But this isn't really true. There were moments when it was like that, but generally, there was an area of Mesopotamia that was ruled from Baghdad, and this has been true for a very long time.

So I think it's one of those simple-minded ideas that come out of Washington think tanks, from people who have very little experience with Iraq. And while they've provided disastrous advice in the past, they're completely unsinkable, and you still see them popping up on CNN and other news programs.

The idea that a fragmented Iraq or a divided Iraq is a solution is, I think, a very dangerous one.

WHAT IMPACT will the constitution draft and the referendum vote have on Iraq's future?

THE CONSTITUTION has been presented in the U.S. as a formula that somehow will bring peace to Iraq, or at least prevent the war from getting worse. But Iraqis have been continually presented with things like this--the constitution, or new governments, or the elections--and all they see is their lives getting worse.

For very common-sense reasons, this tends to discredit whatever political initiatives are taking place. Disregard for a moment whether the constitution is workable, and remember that people are finding that their lives are getting more dangerous by the day--there were 1,200 bodies delivered to the Baghdad mortuary last month alone. So it's natural that if these initiatives don't improve things, they will be discredited in most people's eyes. It's a very obvious point, but it obviously isn't one that's seen in Washington.

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