The Arab League sent a 10-man delegation to Baghdad this past weekend to try to drum up support for a “national reconciliation” conference in Iraq – to be held after the referendum on the draft constitution Saturday. The welcoming committee included highway guerrillas armed to the teeth. Although no Arab League members were shot, two (Shi’ite) Interior Ministry commandos protecting them were killed and six wounded.

Ibrahim Jaafari’s Shi’ite-Kurd government rejected the Arab League’s intervention. President Jalal Talabani said it was “better than nothing,” but it was too little, too late. For both Shi’ites and Kurds, what counts is that the Sunni-dominated Arab League did nothing to try to curb Saddam Hussein’s worst excesses, and did nothing to help during the post-Saddam era.

This dialogue of the deaf offers the context in Baghdad ahead of the popular referendum on the draft constitution. Just to help the process along, a curfew and a four-day national holiday have been declared, starting on Thursday, in which all borders, airports and ports will officially be closed.

Sunnis can scuttle the constitution by recording two-thirds majorities in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces. If the constitution is passed, elections will be held in December to elect a government. If it fails, the elections will install another interim administration to draft a new charter.

Blame Iran

Meanwhile, the new Anglo-American occupation mantra is to blame Iran. First the Pentagon blamed Iran for shipping shaped charges to Sunni Arab guerrillas in northern Iraq – as if Tehran’s Shi’ite leaders would ever be willing to give a helping hand to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The accusation was completely absurd, but it was not altogether dropped. The British came up with a slight variation: Iran is shipping shaped charges to Shi’ite splinter groups in the southern city of Basra so they can attack British troops.

It also does not make sense. Tehran historically supports the Badr Brigades – the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Badr Brigades don’t see eye-to-eye with the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al Sadr’s Shi’ite, Iraqi nationalist militia.

Basically, for the ghetto Arab Shi’ites of the Mahdi, the Badr are “Persians.” So there’s no point in Tehran arming Sadrists or splinter Sadrists. Just to remind anyone that economic benefit is what this is really all about, Jaafari made a point of stressing late last week that “Iraq will continue to expand its relations with Iran.” This includes, on a practical level, 1,500 Iranian pilgrims a day now allowed to go to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala (during Saddam’s regime it used to be no more than 6,000 a month). This will generate billions of dollars of income to the Iraqi government.

Controlling day and night

Two-and-a-half years into the occupation, Baghdad – which during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s was one of the world’s cleanest cities – remains an archipelago of rubble, garbage and fetid lakes. Writing for the Saudi-financed al-Sharq al-Awsat, Maad Fayyad, a London-based Arab journalist, captured the mood, “I wonder – did the Mongols descend on it only yesterday, led by the captain of catastrophe and devotee of death, Hulagu Khan, such that [Baghdad] was transformed into debris?”

The law of the jungle rules – coupled with the collapse of social life. Baghdad is inundated with messages telling people not to congregate anywhere, otherwise they become targets for suicide bombing. Any foreign visitor is a target for kidnapping. Every government official is a prisoner in his or her own office.

To compound the misery, what Sunnis see, apart from the disgraceful state of Baghdad, is the Pentagon relentlessly destroying Sunni Arab infrastructure elsewhere – like in Fallujah on November 2004 and Tal Afar last month. Buildings, bridges, sewage system, telephone network, it’s all gone.

Jaafari’s government controls little else than the Green Zone. Five Baghdad neighborhoods – Ghaziliya, Amiraya, Yarmouk, Doura and Shurta – are controlled by the resistance. People in Baghdad tend to refer to the “resistance” as a whole – not distinguishing between the myriad groups (except for al-Qaeda in Iraq).

The takeover of the majority of the city is a work in progress. This means in practice hooded characters loaded with Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and rocket launchers telling people to stay out of trouble – ie, holed up at home. In a variation of American black ghetto folklore – the “man” controls the day, we control the night – the resistance in these areas controls day and night. There’s nothing Jaafari’s government, holed up in the Green Zone, can do about it.

The resistance of course does not control Sadr City – the giant Shi’ite slum. They don’t need to. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement between Muqtada – and his Mahdi Army – and influential Sunni bodies such as the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is respected by the resistance. Jaafari’s government is in fact doing something. The government may not control the day or the night: militias do. But some militias – such as the Badr Brigades, responding to Interior Minister Bayan Jabor – are part of the government. Bewildered, desperate citizens are caught in the crossfire because everybody – militias, police, the army, different strands of the resistance – wears the same uniform.

Militia hell

Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Salafi jihadis target “apostate” Shi’ites indiscriminately – except, according to a recent communique – those who are not collaborating with the occupation. Their car bombings and suicide bombings, be it in Hilla, Balad or Baghdad, killing scores of women and children, are usually blamed by the locals on Saudis, Jordanians and Palestinians, never on Iraqis. The Salafi jihadis are financed by sheikhs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and most of their suicide bombers are Saudis.

The different strands of the nationalist, Iraqi resistance – disguised as police – attack above all the Jaafari government, which means basically Shi’ite officials, Shi’ite police officers, Shi’ite members or aspiring members of the Iraqi Defense Forces. On the other side of the fence, as secular Sunnis see it, the Badr Brigades terrorize secular, urban Shi’ites, while its death squads – formed by individuals who claim to be working for the Interior Ministry – exterminate secular, Iraqi nationalist Sunnis. No one has a monopoly on death, but these “Interior Ministry” types seem to be responsible as far as the ritual of bodies being routinely discovered is concerned. It could be five Sunnis this past Monday, or 36 Sunnis kidnapped last August in Baghdad, 16 of them coming from the same street in a southern Baghdad suburb.

So this is the visible legacy of the occupation on the eve of a popular vote on a constitution few have even seen: the former capital of the caliphate and Oriental legend, the former proud metropolis of the Arab world, turned into an uninhabitable, lawless pit. When militia hell compounds the social breakdown, a failed state is unlikely to be rescued by a constitution.