George Bush is clearly desperate to have the Iraqi constitution, which has just been ratified by the Iraq Governing Authority, passed by the referendum of Iraqis proposed for October this year. The constitution is in fact a confused and problematic document, which will certainly pave the way for secessionism and increased sectarian violence. But it does offer the United States some of the most important things it has been after: privatisation of oil resources, other market access for its private investors in the ravaged but still oil-rich country, and perhaps most urgent of all – a route for a quick escape of US military out of the country now that the war has become domestically unpopular in the US.
Yet history works in peculiar ways, and the new Constitution – and the government that emerges from this rubble – may end up working against the longer term interests of US imperialism, because of the very nature of the forces that the Americans are releasing in this process.
The context in which this Constitution has been prepared is important. The current “government” – consisting of some representatives of the Kurds and various Shia factions such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da’awa party – has no credibility among the majority of the Iraqi people. It was effectively appointed by the US occupation through a meaningless election organised by the occupation. Since then it has repeatedly betrayed the Iraqi people by failing to keep its pre-election rhetoric regarding the demand for the full withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.
The quisling “government” along with the occupying armies has also failed to provide the minimal security and most basic living conditions to Iraqis. There is widespread loss of legitimacy and disgust with its functioning, and support for the resistance has been increasing on a daily basis, as much as a reaction to the failures of the supposed “government” as in response to the excessive brutalities of the occupation.
The pushing through of a constitution was seen as a way of encouraging Iraqis to believe that they would eventually be delivered a representative and democratic government. The process of drafting has been problematic from the start, and not only because it has been undertaken in the shadow of military occupation. It has brought to the fore the deep divisions within Iraq. But these relate not to the Shia-Sunni-Kurd divide that is given so much publicity, but to the divisions between those sections of the elite (who are willing to trade away domestic resources and democratic rights in return for control over particular territories) and everyone else in Iraq.
If it were ratified, the constitution would overturn the secular character of the Iraqi state and establish the basis for the wholesale erosion of women’s rights and religious freedom. There are a number of contradictions in the document: for example, Article 2 promises equality under the law and says that the judiciary is independent, with no power above it other than the law.” But this is contradicted by Article 19, which declares that “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation: no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” It should be noted that the Supreme Court that will interpret the constitution will consist of individuals appointed “because of their expertise in Islamic law”, which means in other words, clerics.
All this is quite all right with US imperialism, because the real agenda is clarified quite clearly in terms of the control over oil resources and the economy. The Constitution explicitly sanctions and promotes the privatisation of the state-owned oil industry and the free market restructuring of the economy. Article 25 declares “the state shall guarantee the reforming of the Iraqi economy according to modern economic bases, in a way that ensures complete investment of its resources, diversifying its sources and encouraging and developing the private sector”. Article 110 (2) declares that Iraq’s energy resources will be developed “relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment”.
The sop that has been provided to the Iraqis in return for this is the so-called “federalism” enshrined in the Constitution. The groups that are masquerading as the leaders of Kurdish and Shia fundamentalist groups have allowed this US plunder of the Iraqi economy, because in return they will gain control over much of the revenue generated by the oil industry, through the establishment of “federal regions” in the areas under their authority.
Thus, in northern Iraq, the three provinces already under the control of the Kurdish nationalists have been codified by the document into a federal state, with the potential to expand its territory to include the rich oil fields around the city of Kirkuk. SCIRI has been given the opportunity to establish its control over a region that absorbs as much as half the country’s territory in the main oil-producing area of southern Iraq, which has a majority Shia population.
As a result, therefore, the central government in Baghdad will have the power to administer only the oil and gas extracted from current fields, and that too in co-operation with the regions. The newly created regional states would have authority over all new oil fields, which means control over the negotiation of exploration contracts and the bulk of revenues derived from future production. This means that the resource-poor provinces of central and western Iraq, where the majority of Sunni Muslims live, would be dependent on the largesse of the oil-rich regions.
According to the Constitution, the regional governments, rather than the central government in Baghdad, will have jurisdiction over internal security and the power to establish “internal security forces… such as police, security and regional guards”. Since the flow of oil revenues will go into regions controlled by the Kurdish and Shiite elites, the likelihood is that they will end up presiding over what will be little more than one-party mini-states, with associated repression of political opponents and especially of women.
Further, the regional governments will have the power even to “amend” (that is, reject) laws passed by the central government in Baghdad. Article 27 (B) even legitimises the militias controlled by regional authorities, creating armed super-governates with attended powers.
This is not federalism so much as the de facto partitioning of the country, what some have called “the Afghanistanisation of Iraq”. Not surprisingly, it has been strongly opposed by both Sunni organisations and Sadr’s Shiite movement, which is primarily based in Baghdad. Indeed, the final draft has been rejected by every significant representative of the country’s Sunni Arab community and has not even been endorsed by the Shia movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Some aspects of the document have been bitterly opposed not only by women’s groups, but by ethnic Turkomen in the north of the country, Christians and secular organisations.
The concerns of the US regime in lauding and pushing through this document are all too apparent. The Bush administration wants to put in place a regime that has the power to carry through a sell-off of the oil industry, and to sign agreements sanctioning the permanent US military bases that are being built in key areas around the country. In order to transform Iraq into an effective client state of the US, it appears that these Kurdish and Shia faction leaders have emerged as the most viable candidates to fulfill this role.
At the same time, in the face of mounting domestic opposition to the war, the Bush administration is increasingly desperate to withdraw forces at least from certain areas of Iraq and hand over responsibility to Iraqi military units. Already, large numbers of Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite fundamentalist militia, loyal to their respective parties, have already enlisted into the army, police and paramilitary units, where they are routinely accused of extra-judicial killings, arrests and intimidation of opponents of the occupation.
But it is precisely the collaboration of these Iraqi factions that will potentially permit the sending home of some US troops, to placate the growing demands in the US for a withdrawal. This will also enable the US military to concentrate its forces in the Sunni provinces where the constitution is most opposed and where it is believed that the armed resistance is the strongest.
However, these very conditions make the outcome of the referendum unclear. The constitution can be defeated if two-thirds of voters in just three provinces vote “No” in the referendum. Sunni Arabs and Shia supporters of al-Sadr make up an overwhelming majority of the population in at least five central and western provinces, including Baghdad. This is why the Sunni opposition to the constitution is already developing into a campaign to register Sunnis voters who will vote “No”. Many Sunni groups that had called for a boycott of the January election are supporting participation in the referendum in order to reject the Constitution. Further, Iraqi women who have long been accustomed to basic rights in previous regimes, may not wish to vote for a Constitution that effectively reduces them to inferior citizens.
However, even if the US government does get its way and the new Constitution is ratified by referendum, the ultimate result may be to greater further geopolitical difficulties for the US. The Shia groups that are likely to control most of Iraq, and especially the oil rich areas, are all heavily influenced by the ruling Iranian government.
The US disaffection with Iran is well-known, and its threats to focus on “regime change” in Iran through military or other means are not be taken lightly. Indeed, even as the US administration is promoting the Shia groups in Iraq, it is funding the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a more radical grouping that is engaging in military insurgency in Iran, so as to undermine that regime of Shia clerics. So if the Shia ruling elites in various parts of Iraq and in Iran eventually come together to form an axis, that would be a geopolitical nightmare for the US neoconservatives.
Paradoxically, therefore, instead of cementing US control over oil resources, the new Constitution may eventually even become a means of undermining American domination in the region.