Iraqi anger as governing council signs US-dictated constitution

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ahmad Musa

Safar 11, 1425 2004-04-01

Occupied Arab World

by Ahmad Musa (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 2, Safar, 1425)

Considering the fact that divisions inherent in Iraqi society are supposed to be the greatest problem facing Iraq as it seeks a new future following the American occupation, there seemed to be remarkable consensus among Iraqis of most communities following the signing of the American-dictated interim constitution on March 8, 2004.

Although the signing did finally go ahead, after being delayed first by the bombings of Shi’as on Ashura (March 2), in which nearly 200 people were martyred in Karbala, and then by the reluctance of Shi’a members of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to sign it, it was immediately criticised not only by Ayatullah Ali Sistani, the main Shi’a leader in Iraq, but also by ordinary people all over the country, and even by some of the members of the governing council who had just put their signatures to it.

The Shi’a leaders’ main concern is with the clause that allows minorities to veto elements of a later, permanent constitution that is supposed to be agreed after the formal transfer of sovereignty scheduled for June. Such is the Shi’a disquiet with this clause, that five Shi’a members of the 25-member IGC simply did not turn up for a scheduled signing on March 5 after consultations with Ayatullah Sistani.

They were Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ibrahim Jafari of the Dawa Party, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, Mowafaq Rubaie and America’s man on the council, Ahmed Chalabi, who evidently joined the protest to avoid losing face among the Shi’as he is supposed to represent on the IGC. The no-show, with everything in place for a formal ceremony, was a severe embarrassment to the US.

While US officials played down the problem, describing it as signs of healthy debate among Iraqis, while privately seething at the disruption of their plans, the Shi’a leaders spent the weekend in conference with Ayatullah Sistani and others. They ultimately decided to go ahead with signing the constitution on March 8, despite misgivings which they voiced freely after the ceremony. The signing was also overshadowed by an audacious attack on the Rashid Hotel, directly opposite the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters, where the signing ceremony took place, which highlighted the continuing problems the US is having in maintaining security even in the heart of Baghdad, and even as they press ahead with political plans which they hope will render the military opposition irrelevant and out of date.

Although reports of the disagreements about the interim constitution focussed on Shi’a concerns that the Kurds could veto future constitutional developments, Shi’a leaders insisted that they had no problem with the Kurds specifically, simply with the principle of the situation. They are thought to be concerned that the US could use this to unduly influence future Iraqi politics through alliance with minority groups in Iraq.

Objections were also raised about the make-up of the yet-to-be-formed presidency council, which will consist of one president and two deputies. Shi’as had demanded a five-member presidency, with three Shi’as, one Sunni and a Kurd, reflecting the Iraqi population. Another point of dispute is the clause barring changes to the constitution unless approved by 75 percent of the future national assembly and the presidency council.

The interim constitution, which is thought to have been drafted by American officials working under Paul Bremer, the US’s pro-consul in Iraq, defines Iraq as "republican,federal, democratic and pluralistic", and includes a bill of rights protecting freedom of speech, religion and assembly, as well as the right to eduction, healthcare and due process. It sets January 31, 2005, as the latest possible date for holding elections to a 275-member interim national assembly. This will elect a president and two deputies, which will choose a prime minister and appoint a cabinet. This national assembly will be expected to draft a permanent constitution, to be ratified by January 1, 2006.

Ayatullah al-Sistani issued a statement from his office in Najaf pointing out the fundamentally flawed nature of the interim constitution. "Any law prepared for the transitional period will not acquire legitimacy until it is approved by the elected national assembly," he said. "This law places obstacles to drafting a permanent constitution for the country that preserves its unity and the rights of all its people."

Differences among the IGC members apart, there is also widespread opposition to the interim constitution and the whole US-planned political process in Iraq generally. Immediately after the signing ceremony, there were protests in the streets of major towns around the country. These began immediately after the signing, when people took to the streets in southern towns to support Sistani’s criticisms of the constitution, and peaked the next Friday, March 12, when there were demonstrations after juma in towns including Baghdad, Kufah, Mosul, Basra and Najaf. In Baghdad there were separate rallies in Nasr City and Mustansiriya University, apart from a major one outslde the Ramadan Mosque and other smaller ones.

One feature of these demonstrations was that in several places, members of different communities came together to highlight the fact that their opposition is based not on sectarian issues, but on common opposition to the US occupation and manipulation of Iraqi politics.

A week later there were more major demonstrations against the constitution, coinciding also with the eve of the first anniversary of the US invasion. Probably the largest single demonstration took place in Baghdad, where thousands of Sunnis and Shi’as gathered in the al-Adhamya and al-Khadhimya districts before converging for a joint show of unity.

The demonstration, organised by the Hayat Ulama Muslimeen (Association of Muslim Scholars), the main Sunni organisation in Iraq, started at the Abu Hanifa Mosque before converging with another demonstration organised by Shi’a ulama, scheduled to start from al-Khadimya across the river Tigris. Demonstrators chanted "Yes to Iraq, no to sectarianism, no to US occupation". The AMS is strictly non-sectarian in its outlook, and has remained outside the IGC, strictly opposing any sort of cooperation with the US occupation forces. In its political understanding, it has much in common with some of the military opposition forces, and offers the main opposition in Iraq apart from Sistani and the Shi’a establishment. The latter are tainted in some Iraqi eyes by their cooperation with the IGC, even though their policies show them to be trying to oppose the US agenda from within the US’s own political structures.

Despite the care many in Iraq are taking to avoid the problem of sectarianism, however, a strong sectarian streak is emerging among Arab commentators outside Iraq, who appear determined to impose a sectarian framework on their interpretation of the situation in Iraq. Thus, although the Shi’as insist that they have no intention of imposing anything on Iraq’s minorities, many Arab commentators outside the country insist on portraying them as collaborators pursuing a sectarian agenda, and aiming to oppress the country’s non-Shi’a minorities. Despite the fact that many in Iraq seem determined to avoid this path, that it is emerging in some Arab discourse is worrying.

Meanwhile, the US is moving to establish the framework of an independent, vaguely democratic Iraqi government so that it can claim success in its war, despite the fact that its grounds for invading have been exposed as lies and it has totally failed to win either hearts or minds in the country. It is also claiming to be creating a democratic model for other Arab countries.

However, one thing is very clear, although little discussed. For all the talk about transferring sovereignty by June, the US is working hard behind the scenes to ensure that its key interests are secured before any transfer takes place. Its reconstruction and oil contracts are being made irreversible, as are agreements for keeping troops in Iraq in future. All the US really wants is to secure its objectives at minimum cost to themselves.

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