This is the new Iraq – where the process for a new democratic constitution is greeted by the specter of civil war.

On midnight last Saturday the Iraq Governing Council (IGC) failed to meet a deadline – imposed by American proconsul L Paul Bremer – to reach agreement on a draft constitution. Bremer himself intervened, applying heavy pressure. At 4:30am on Monday, the IGC proclaimed that it had finally agreed on a draft. Then on Tuesday morning the devastating anti-Shi’ite attacks took place in Baghdad and Karbala.

Ashura observances in Karbala, a few hours before Tuesday’s bombings. Photo: Nir Rosen

As early as Tuesday afternoon, fingers were already pointing toward a suspect, alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose purported letter was unearthed last month on a computer disk that fell into US hands and which supplies the perfect motive: al-Qaeda wants a civil war in Iraq.

How did Iraq slide in 24 hours from adopting a draft constitution that could pave the way for democracy into a state where civil war is a definite step closer? Simple. Blame it on al-Qaeda. It’s the easy way out. But the attacks against the Shi’ites must be interpreted in light of what happened behind the closed doors of the US-appointed IGC during the weekend.

Divide and rule

A united Iraqi nation resisting the massive presence of US and other foreign troops in its territory, even after the transfer of sovereignty on June 30, would be a troublesome prospect. So no wonder articles have already popped up in the New York Times and the French daily Le Figaro calling for a partition of Iraq. The argument is that the unity of the Iraqi nation is a mirage: the country can only be governed by brute force (Saddam Hussein-style, but without the massacres). Over the years, Washington figures from many sides of the political spectrum have consistently voiced the same opinion.

According to the British imperial maxim of “divide and rule,” three small states – Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite – would be much easier to control than the Iraq construct put together by the British themselves. The operation would also fulfill neo-conservative dreams of deporting Palestinians from the West Bank to a putative Sunni mini-Iraq. Defenders of the idea mention Yugoslavia as a successful example of a modern partition.

The drama of building a new Iraq centers on how tribe, religion and national, regional and ethnic identities can be integrated into a national political system capable of incorporating all parties and reflecting real power balances. This immense undertaking cannot possibly be addressed by a body, the IGC, chosen by the occupying force and totally divorced from the general population, which calls it “the imported government.” Those who want the partition of Iraq simply don’t understand how religion, ethno-nationalism and statehood coexist in this eastern flank of the Arab nation. Iraqis want a united country: they regard themselves first and foremost as Iraqis; then as Arabs (80 percent of the population), members of the great Arab nation; and then finally as Sunni or Shi’ite.

Who’s blaming whom?

Predictably, the IGC as a whole follows the Pentagon screenplay and blames the multiple carnage in Baghdad and Karbala on al-Zarqawi – the Jordanian-born alleged al-Qaeda operative with a US$10 million bounty on his head. Zarqawi fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as alongside the Taliban in the autumn of 2001. For US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Zarqawi before the war on Iraq was the missing link between Saddam and the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now the Pentagon considers Zarqawi the No 1 al-Qaeda terrorist involved with Iraq.

In the Sunni Arab world, nobody believes in the veracity of the now-famous Zarqawi letter found on a computer disk. It couldn’t be more convenient in the ways it outlines a full strategy for attacks on the Shi’ites. The writer in the Zarqawi letter lists four key enemies to be fought: Americans, Iraqi security forces, Kurds and Shi’ites. Provoking Shi’ites, he writes, is the way to set in motion a whole hellish circle of retaliation. The letter reads: “If we succeed in dragging them [Shi’ites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.”

It’s instructive to examine how the Shi’ites are responding to the provocation. Among the Shi’ites on the lGC, moderate Mowaffaq al-Rubaie has blamed the carnage on Zarqawi. But most crucially he echoes a nationalist stance shared by most Iraqis, irrespective of their religious belief: “Sunnis, Shi’ites, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, all Iraqis are determined to move forward. United we stand to build a new Iraq.”

Hamid al-Bayati, a top official from the best-organized Shi’ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also blamed al-Qaeda, but in tandem with “Saddam loyalists.” “The people behind this act are what remains of the regime, backed by people like al-Qaeda, with the goal of igniting civil strife. But we are aware of this danger and will not succumb to it.”

Feelings on the Shi’ite street are likely to be much more complex. Some will indeed say that the carnage is a provocation to engage them in a civil war. But they will be divided on who ordered it.

There are some telling signs. Shi’ite survivors of the attacks in Baghdad instinctively hurled stones at US troops in their Humvees and armored vehicles as they approached the square outside the Kadhim shrine where the attacks took place. In many hospitals in the area, some were blaming the Americans – for the war, for the occupation, for the lax security – and others were blaming al-Qaeda and Wahhabi extremists. In Karbala, the Shi’ite mob turned against Iranian pilgrims – even though the ministry of interior in Tehran said that 40-50 Iranians were among the dead and wounded in both cities.

Shi’ite cleric Sheik Sayyed Akeel al-Khatib said the attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers. “This means they came from abroad and were not Iraqis.” Shi’ites are overwhelmingly sure that Muslims could not possibly commit these crimes at the height of Ashura – the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, when Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was killed in battle nearly 1,400 years ago. Imam Hussein’s tomb is under a golden-domed shrine in Karbala only a few steps away from the blasts. Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the al-Dawa Party, says that “war has been launched on Islam.” So, according to a dominant Shi’ite perception, this had to be the work of non-believers.

US intelligence may have thought about the possibility of attacks during Ashura. Security apparently was improved by the US-trained Iraqi police around Karbala and other Shi’ite towns in the south. Karbala currently falls under Polish control. The Polish and Iraqi police closed the main road leading to the tomb of Imam Hussein and installed plenty of checkpoints – to no avail. In Beirut, Sheikh Hamed Khalaf, one of the spokesmen for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key Iraqi Shi’ite leader, laid the blame directly on American soldiers for the attacks: after all, they are responsible for security in Iraq. This can be interpreted as the Grand Ayatollah’s view.

Sources confirm to Asia Times Online that there’s a pervasive feeling in the Shi’ite street that the multiple carnage was a bloody message by the Americans to Sistani: stop demanding direct elections, or else. On top of it, we have Shi’ites indistinctly blaming the Americans and Wahhabis – a code for al-Qaeda. This means that there is a clear perception in the Shi’ite street that the agenda of both Washington and al-Qaeda is the same: both sides want civil war. The Americans can invoke chaos as a reason to prolong the occupation and fight “terrorism.” And Islamist groups profiting from a link with the brand name “al-Qaeda” can keep focusing Islamists everywhere in the anti-American jihad going on in Iraq.

The most important element in the equation is that practically no Shi’ites are directly blaming Sunnis – or vowing revenge. This proves once again that the resistance against the occupation has forged its own unity.

Will Sharia and democracy co-exist?

The two volcanic issues dividing the IGC in the debate about the draft constitution were the role of Islam in Iraq and Kurdish demands for federalism. It’s no secret that most in the IGC – Shi’ites but also Sunnis – are in favor of Sharia law. The key question was a dispute over a move to make divorce and inheritance rights subject to Sharia. During Saddam’s regime, these were enshrined women’s rights. Women at the IGC had to lobby very hard not to lose them.

The IGC couldn’t agree on Kurdish autonomy in the north of Iraq, nor on how to share power between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. So even before Bremer’s intervention the specter of civil war was very much alive.

Bremer had threatened to veto any law that included inheritance and divorce subjected to Sharia. Young Shi’ite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr even made vague threats of armed resistance if Bremer used the veto. And to complicate matters further, Shi’ites and Sunnis alike were not only against Kurdish autonomy, but their demands to include oil-rich Kirkuk in their Iraqi Kurdistan.

The compromise announced may satisfy religious clerics, liberal democrats, Kurdish autonomists and of course the occupying power; but it only happened under the threat of Bremer’s gun. In theory, the draft constitution guarantees the rights of women inside their families and a quota of 25 percent of women in future Iraqi legislative bodies. Islam is not “the” primary source of legislation – but one of them: so any future legislation cannot be contrary to Islamic principles.

The key problem remains: Who will define the compatibility between secular legislation and Sharia? And how to ensure that no law in the new Iraq is contrary to either democracy or Islamic principles?

Iraqi Kurdistan will remain autonomous until an elected parliament and a legitimate government are able to decide its future. Shi’ites and Sunnis also anticipate the possibility that three regions anywhere in the country may decide to form a federation. Among the 18 Iraqi regions, three have a Kurdish majority, three have a Sunni majority, nine have a Shi’ite majority and three are an ethnic patchwork.

No major controversy has really been solved by this draft constitution. It’s an extremely provisional document that the administration of US President George W Bush can brandish like a “victory” on the path toward a new Iraq. The rules of the game are in place for the transition between June 30 – when a local authority will come to power – and national elections to be held by next January. Only after this election will a constituent assembly rewrite a definitive charter – in theory based on the draft one.

A future Iraq as a federalist state like India, Canada or Brazil, with a system whereby regions enjoy large autonomy, remains a project. The devil is in the details.

Nobody knows how an Iraqi interim government – to rule from June 30 until the elections – will be chosen. The United States will open its largest embassy in the world on July 1 in Baghdad. It will totally control the interim government. And it will rely on more than 100,000 US troops stationed in Iraq. “What handover?” asks a Shi’ite businessman in Baghdad. Millions of Shi’ites – all of them oblivious to the non-transparent machinations inside the IGC – fear that the de facto occupation may last for years. The draft constitution was due to be signed by Bremer on Wednesday – before the IGC declared three days of mourning for the victims of the multiple carnage. Now it will probably be inked on Friday. The draft constitution was born, as the White House wanted. But it was born already drenched in Shi’ite blood.

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