Today's date:
  Global Viewpoint



Salim Lone served in Iraq as the director of communications for the U.N. mission in Iraq immediately after the 2003 war and was top aide to Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a bombing of the U.N.'s Iraq headquarters in 2003.

By Salim Lone

LONDON -- On the eve of Saturday’s referendum on the Iraqi constitution, the Iraqi parliament finally added a clause indicating this constitution “is a guarantee for the unity of Iraq.” This last-minute amendment will not prevent Iraq's emerging as the state with the weakest central government in modern history. Possibly, it will end up tearing Iraq apart.

Many had feared that that would be the inescapable outcome of the Anglo-American war and occupation. Others had actually planned for such an outcome.

Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, structural partition had been seen by U.S. hardliners and some others as the surest way of weakening the most powerful Arab state not in the American camp.

The constitution therefore cedes almost complete territorial control and authority to each of the three principal communities’ regions. This includes oil revenues, which means it would put Arab Sunnis at a major disadvantage since almost all the country’s oil is produced in Shi’a and Kurdish regions. The constitution also prevents former members of the Ba’ath party, to which most Sunnis belonged, from holding public office. The document will alienate yet more Sunnis, and be yet another impediment to the hope of Iraqis working together once again.

This constitution provided a fresh opportunity to address the central issue in Iraq -- the raging insurgency and the accompanying terrorism triggered by the occupation -- by making a serious effort to reach out to Sunnis as a first step toward finding a political solution to the violence bleeding Iraq. Not only was this opportunity not taken, but so dominant have sectarian interests now become that we saw the Shi’a-and-Kurd-dominated Parliament make a crude effort last week to ensure passage of the constitution by in effect negating whatever Sunni referendum votes might be cast. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s quick and public intervention led to an embarrassing reversal.

The early markers on the road to the weakening and balkanizing of Iraq were the devastating first Gulf war, the imposition of comprehensive sanctions and the Western-backed creation of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

After the 2003 war, the Americans re-organized Iraqi political life along explicitly sectarian lines, with the July 2003 Iraq Governing Council’s membership to be filled by 13 Shi’a, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Turkoman and one from the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian community. At the same time, the U.S. worked systematically to eliminate all Saddamist (which meant Sunni) influence from national life. The majority Shi’a were picked to hold the reins of power, and their fealty to U.S. goals in Iraq was to be further assured by the prospect of a constitution that would offer them an oil-rich autonomy similar to the Kurds. Little did the Americans know that the Shi’a rank and file would be as fiercely opposed to the occupation as the Sunnis were.

Most Iraqis have, in fact, continued to resist categorization into sectarian groups. It is a remarkable tribute to Iraqis that they have withstood the enormously destructive terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists, and other, generally unreported killings of Sunnis by Shi’a and Kurdish militias, without descending to all-out civil war.

Indeed, for some time now, American and British occupation officials have been regularly raising alarm about the spectre of full-blown civil war in Iraq, without even a hint of recognition that religious extremism and terrorism were spawned by the war, the consciously sectarian occupation policies and the punitive marginalizing of Sunnis.

Iraq is now the world’s breeding ground for terrorists. At the same time, Iran, which the neo-conservatives and U.S. President George W. Bush loathe, has a major foothold in Iraq, since many of the new Shi’a leaders have close links with their fellow religionists to the east. Long-term, strategic U.S. interests are being severely undermined through gross miscalculation or concern for only the short-term, and Iraq is being destroyed, but the Bush administration refuses to change course. 

From the beginning of the occupation, the U.S. has consistently portrayed each new milestone toward Iraqi “sovereignty” as being vital for undercutting the insurgency and terrorism. In practice, the opposite has always occurred, as each attempt to provide Iraqi legitimacy for occupation institutions enrages more Iraqis and the level of violence exceeds all previous levels. 

In addition, the current government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, like the two previous ones of 2003 and 2004, has showed itself to be singularly incapable of achieving anything meaningful, and enjoys little trust from Iraqis. It is hard to imagine such weak leadership undertaking the bold steps that are needed to find an Iraqi solution to the crisis, which must include initiating negotiations with the insurgents.