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A Constitution That Means Nothing To Ordinary Iraqis


Behind ramparts of concrete and barbed wire, the framers of Iraq’s new constitution wrestled yesterday to prevent – or bring about – the federalisation of Iraq while their compatriots in the hot and fetid streets outside showed no interest in their efforts.

Today is supposed to be “C” day, according to President Bush and all the others who illegally invaded this country in 2003. However, in ” real” Baghdad – where the President and Prime Minister and the constitutional committee never set foot – they ask you about security, about electricity, about water, about when the occupation will end, when the murders will end, when the rapes will end.

They talk, quite easily, about the “failed” Jaafari government, so blithely elected by Shias and Kurds last January. “Failed” because it cannot protect its own people. “Failed” because it cannot rebuild its own capital city – visible to it between the Crusader-like machine-gun slits in the compound walls – and because it cannot understand, let alone meet, the demands of the “street”.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland Iraq of Messrs Bush and Blair – inhabited, too, by the elected government of Iraq and its constitutional drafters and quite a few Western journalists – there are no such problems to cope with. The air-conditioners hiss away – there are generators to provide 24-hour power – and almost all senior officials have palatial homes in the heavily protected “Green Zone” which was once Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace compound. No power cuts for them, no petrol queues, no kidnaps and murders.

As an Iraqi academic just returned from Paris and Brussels told me yesterday: “Europeans understand politics through the Green Zone level. They have no idea that the rest of Iraq – save for Kurdistan – is a place of anarchy and death. One asked me: ’Do you think federalism is really a danger to the Sunni?’ I answered him: ’Do you think the fear of constant death is not a danger to Sunnis, Shia and Kurds?’ His eyes glazed over. It was not what he wanted to talk about. But it is what we talk about.”

Those few Iraqis who bother to read the government press in Baghdad – their low circulation mirrors the same phenomenon of disbelief that existed under Saddam’s regime – are told every nuance of the constitutional debate. The name of the state has been agreed (The Iraqi Republic), the distribution of financial resources according to demographic areas rather than provinces (bad news for the Kurds), and that Islam should be “one” of the sources of legislation (bad news for those who want an Islamic republic).

There is a “constitutional committee” and a “constitutional commission” (comprising 55 elected parliamentary deputies) with 15 unelected Sunnis (because the Sunni population largely boycotted last January’s election), each committee divided into five sub-committees, each one studying one chapter in the constitution. The actual writers of this massive document – they allegedly include at least two professors – remain anonymous for “security reasons”. And all live in the heavily guarded Green Zone, safe – more or less – from the insurgents and, more importantly, safer from ordinary Iraqis who have to endure the violence of the American occupation, the oppression of the insurgents and the daily threat of mass, organised crime.

Everyone knows the real issue behind the constitution: will it allow Iraq’s three principle communities – the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds – to form their own federal states? And if so, will this mean the break up of Iraq? The Sunnis, the only one of the three whose homes do not sit on oil reserves, are naturally against such a division which would, incidentally, allow the Americans and the other Western nations, who still claim to have liberated Iraq for “democracy”, to reach oil deals with two weakened entities rather than a potentially united Iraqi nation.

Add to all this Kurdistan’s demand that the future demography of Kirkuk – the Arab population injected by Saddam, the Kurdish population of the city exiled by Saddam and its minority Turkomans – be settled before the constitution is written, and you get a good idea why even the Americans are beginning to lose patience. The Kurds want oil-rich Kirkuk to be the capital of Kurdistan – a state which already exists although no Iraqi seems to be prepared to admit this – and thus further cut away at the frontier between ” Arab” Iraq and “Kurdish” Iraq.

The problem is that all these issues are played out not in Iraq but in the Alice-in-Wonderland world already described. This is a unique place in which Saddam’s trial is always being predicted to start in two months’ time – on at least four occasions this has happened – in which Iraqi reconstruction is always about to restart and in which insurgent strength is always weakening. In fact, Iraqi guerrillas are now striking at the Americans 70 times a day and so fearful are senior American officers of an increase in attacks that this has become their principle reason for trying to prevent the release of 87 further photographs and videotapes of the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuses.

In Real Iraq, it makes no difference. For the “street”, Saddam is history, there is no reconstruction and the filth of Abu Ghraib causes no great surprise – because most Iraqis knew all about it months before the West opened its horrified eyes to the pictures.

As for the constitution, I asked an old Iraqi friend what he thought yesterday. “Sure, it’s important,” he said. “But my family lives in fear of kidnapping, I’m too afraid to tell my father I work for journalists, and we only have one hour in six of electricity and we can’t even keep our food from going bad in the fridge. Federalism? You can’t eat federalism and you can’t use it to fuel your car and it doesn’t make my fridge work.”

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