Delay Sought on Iraqi Constitution

According to the AP, the Constitutional Committee is seeking a 30-day delay in submitting the Iraqi constitution. This is a serious setback to the American plans, as I’ve been told repeatedly all through July that no delay was forthcoming and that the Iraqis should stick to the schedule because, a U.S. official told me, the Iraqis work best under pressure.

According to the AP, the Iraqi Constitutional Committee is seeking a 30-day delay in submitting the Iraqi constitution:

Under the original deadline, the National Assembly had until Aug. 15 to approve the charter and submit it to a national referendum in mid-October. That formula was strongly supported by the Americans. But major differences remain among the ethnic and religious groups represented on the committee.

This will be a serious setback to the American plans (if true, see below). I was told repeatedly all through July that no delay was forthcoming and that the Iraqis should stick to the schedule because, a U.S. official told me, the Iraqis work best under pressure.

“We have consistently urged all members of the national assembly and the Iraqi government to maintain the time schedule outlined in the TAL,” he told me in early July. “The press of time is always a factor in Iraqi politics,” he continued:

“It was in the Aug. 2004 convening of the national conference, it was again with the preparations for the elections and parties having to make a decision to register and run and their candidates to run. And it will be again, with the constitution. They work best when they’re under a time deadline. It makes it harder, but it’s just the way diplomacy is here.”

“The Americans want to make a quick constitution,” said Mahmoud Othman, Kurdish member of the panel, adding that U.S. officials were putting intense pressure on the drafters. However, he cautioned: “They have a lot of experience in fast food, but they can’t make a fast constitution.”

(Heh. I love Mahmoud. I’ve sometimes heard other reporters refer to him as “Mr. Dial-a-Quote.”)

So this (possible) delay can’t be making anyone smile in the embassy today. Especially because I was told by a high-level U.S. diplomat just yesterday that there would be no delay. Further sticking a finger in the eye of the Americans, the issues gumming up the works—federalism and the role of religion—are the same issues that have been bedeviling the process since the get-go. That means the March-to-July frantic behind-the-scenes work of the embassy to broker a consensus has so far borne little fruit. And that further means the American influence is less than most people think.

Although now that I think about it, my conspiratorial mind comes into play. Perhaps everyone has been reading from the same song book—no delay, no way—only to spring the holdup on the Iraqi people at the last minute to make it look like the Iraqis have stood up to the Americans, granting the committee more legitimacy among the people who think it’s all being run out of the embassy.

Cunning devils.

But assuming that isn’t the case, federalism is probably the main sticking point. The Sunnis don’t want any form of federalism because they say it will lead to the breakup of the country, but it’s really because they don’t [want] the Kurds and Shi’ites to have oil-rich districts with control of the revenues while they get the western desert. I’ve been out there. It sucks. The Kurds, however, say if they don’t get to keep what they have, and Kirkuk, to boot, there’s going to be a war.

The role of religion has also been a problem, with the religious Shi’ite parties pushing hard for Islam to be “the main source” of legislation and subordinating the rights of women to shari’ah. There are also some drafts of constitutions floating around enshrining the Shi’ite clergy—the merjariyah, of which Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the preeminent member—in a constitutional role, but I don’t think that will make it into the final draft.

I’m of two minds on the delay. On the one hand, I don’t think a 30-day delay will do much to build trust between the Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis, which is the biggest problem affecting Iraq these days. A month isn’t enough time for that. On the other hand, perhaps a delay will allow federalism and religion to be crow-barred into position in the document and the trust will just have to come later. Inshallah.

[UPDATE 7:40:36 PM +0300 GMT: Well, well. AFP says non! to the delay, and Reuters says the panel is only “considering” one. At the moment, the U.S. embassy isn’t commenting, but there’s supposed to be a press conference tomorrow morning. I’ve not seen a statement from the embassy commenting on the delay yet, so perhaps this thing will be headed off, after all. I’m sure the Americans kicked it into high gear once the committee signaled a willingness to hang the deadline.

[I should have explained it better above, but the deadline for requesting a delay is tomorrow. It’s possible that they can ask parliament and the presidency council and have it denied. But if they don’t request a delay and can’t get the constitution done by Aug. 15, parliament is dissolved and new elections must be called. So the stakes are pretty high.]

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Another Day in Ramadi

Signs warning “Complacency kills” dot the bases of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi. The Marines stationed in this provincial capital in the treacherous Sunni triangle are bored. Bored of patrols, tired of manning outposts and frustrated by an enemy they can’t meet face-to-face. The signs attest to the tedium of their days.

_(Note: This is the dispatch I planned to file from my last embed in Ramadi back in May. For a variety of reasons it never made it into TIME, but I thought you guys might like to see it. This was a typical day on a week-long embed at the end of May.)_
RAMADI — Signs warning “Complacency kills” dot the bases of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi.
The Marines stationed in this provincial capital in the treacherous Sunni triangle are bored. Bored of patrols, tired of manning outposts and frustrated by an enemy they can’t meet face-to-face. The signs attest to the tedium of their days.
Unlike the few soldiers and Marines taking the fight to insurgents in towns such as al-Qa’im on the Syrian border, most of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including the guys of the 1-5, are not likely to “get some,” as the young warriors like to say. There are few firefights in Ramadi, a city of about 375,000 people, but lots of roadside bombs. Marines are hunkered down in their bases. When they get out, they patrol the streets, search cars and houses and act more like police than a military force.
“We’re not on the offensive anymore,” said Lt. Brian Huysman, commander of Alpha Company, from his post at the Anbar Province Government Center, which his men guard. “We’re not here to stop the insurgency, but to help the Iraqi government grow.”
His men guard the building so the Anbar government, such as it is, can function. The day after the provincial council elected a new governor, he was promptly kidnapped. Now the deputy governor has taken over the duties of governor. Marines also help set up the new police force, which is non-existent at the moment. The screening process for the new applicants is set to start May 22. “It’s a day-in, day-out kind of thing,” Huysman said thoughtfully as he watched Iraqis wave metal detecting wands over Anbar Governorate employees coming into the triple-walled compound. “There’s no corner to turn. It’s just a slow, slow process.”
By early afternoon, the sun has hit peak intensity, and the men of 1st platoon, Charlie Company are sweating heavily in their body armor. They’re on a patrol to investigate anti-American graffiti on three “known bad guy” mosques near the canal. Three Shi’ites from Najaf, members of the 18th Brigade of the new Iraqi Army—the Desert Lions— are with them because mosques are sensitive sites. Marines aren’t to enter unless the Iraqi troops determine there’s reason to search. There is almost no traffic or people on the streets, making the hairs on the back of Marines’ necks bristle.
They search a palatial house and find a Kalashnikov magazine with a single armor-piercing round in it, in the lead position. The man who says he lives there isn’t arrested, nor is his ammo confiscated, but he’s put on a watch list. In another house, next to one of the suspect mosques, Capt. John Maloney, commander of Charlie Company, talks to the owner, an old man in a white dishdasha. He offers the Marines water, but the captain defers to the Iraqi troops with him, and asks him to support them and give him information about insurgents.
The old man replies that if they are Shi’ite, they have no business in Ramadi. He fears the insurgents and their homemade bombs, but he also fears the Shi’ite government in Baghdad and its new army. His fear reveals the fault lines of the new Iraq and the challenge the Marines face in their mission here.
It’s frustrating. No one knows how long it will really take to build a credible government that all Iraqis believe in. The lack of enemy contact — and missions that seem designed to avoid contact with insurgents — frustrates the leathernecks. Marines are trained to fight, acknowledges battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Smith, and any Marine will say he’d rather be in a gunfight than patrolling a city. However, “There will be no knockout punch here,” Smith said. “It is a daily grind.”
But while the duties are tedious, they’re still dangerous.
“Try watching your buddy get blown up by an IED set by chickenshits who won’t come out and fight,” growled a lance corporal in 1st platoon of 1-5’s Charlie Company.
Five Marines have died since the 1-5 arrived in early March.
And the duties are vital. Iraqi security forces are not ready to take over, fears of civil war loom and insurgents can still move relatively freely. But these boring day-to-day tasks of the Marines in Ramadi are the new American strategy in Iraq: Avoid casualties, hold down the violence and hope the Iraqi security forces can take the fight to the insurgency.
Like much of Anbar province, Ramadi is a dirty, dun-colored place, made up of squat two- and three-story buildings. It tumbles out in a triangle from the intersection of the Euphrates River and the Habbaniyah canal, which feeds into Lake Habbaniyah to the south. And like most Iraqi cities, the dividing line is carelessly maintained between the city and the countryside. Ramadi just kind of runs out of steam to the south and shrugs into farmland as it gets closer to the lake.
Roads from Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia converge here, before merging into the major highway leading to Baghdad. Before the war, these roads made Ramadi a smugglers’ haven, one barely under the control of Saddam Hussein. Today, insurgents and foreign fighters make use of the same smugglers’ trails and while it’s not the insurgent stronghold Fallujah was, the deeply conservative culture, a population that’s 90 percent Sunni and a local leadership made up of tribal sheikhs and imams gives the Marines’ enemies plenty of purchase in Anbar’s capital.
The 1-5 in turn occupies three bases on the strategic tip of the city where the river and canal split: Camp Ramadi, Hurricane Point and Snake Pit. They have responsibility for the western half of the city while the Army’s 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment has the eastern half. With no police force to speak of — it fell apart earlier this year in the face of persistent insurgent attacks — the Marines are the main security presence in the city.
That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. “I cannot contain my excitement of going on this patrol,” Lance Corporal James Bellasario, 19, of White Hall, Mont., said sarcastically before 2nd platoon of Charlie Company began a sweep for weapons caches on the banks of the canal.
He worries that the lack of obvious successes in Iraq will mean the conflict slips the American public’s mind. “If that happens,” he said, taking a long drag on a cigarette he is too young to buy in some states, “what the hell are over here for? It will be just like Vietnam.”
Maj. Benjamin Busch, with a civil affairs unit attached to the 1-5, sympathizes. “It’s always nice to have a specific place that’s a focus of your effort,” he said. Ramadi doesn’t offer that, as there are no strategic targets other than the goodwill of the citizens, which is vital to the Marines’ efforts here. “When it comes to the actual engagements, the Marines are winning. But the insurgents have incredible power to shut the city down.”
That power is fear, and the people of Ramadi feel it. When insurgents plan an attack, the people know it. Sometimes they tip off the Marines, sometimes they don’t. Members of 2nd platoon grumble about this.
Such patrols are designed not only to find weapons caches, said Smith, but also to squeeze the insurgents from operating in areas of town and undermine their ability to terrorize. The theory is that the mere presence of Marines rather than heavy offensive actions will prove to Ramadi citizens the insurgents can’t provoke or drive away the Americans because for the insurgents, just attacking the Marines is a victory. Attacks show the Americans aren’t in control and undermine citizens’ sense of safety.
“In a sense, not having contact is good, because if I’m able to keep the level of violence down until the government can take over, that’s a successful day,” Smith said. “That gets me to the strategic aim of stability.”
Now, as another day ends without incident or encounter with the enemy, Maloney likens the current battle for Iraq as a chess match. “The trick here, like chess, is to set up the environment,” he said.
His men moved into position as he spoke: some on lookout on roofs, others down the road looking for men planting IEDs. Still others were stopping cars in snap vehicle checks in an attempt to surprise insurgents. He was continuing to apply pressure, but nothing to a breaking point. The goal was to get insurgents to show themselves while keeping his pieces in play.
“Every time they’ve come out, they’ve lost a pawn,” he said. “And they’ve lost a few knights, too.”
Ramadi’s dust hung in the air, backlit by the setting sun. The muezzin’s call to prayer drifted over the city. The Marines headed back to Snake Pit, knowing that when they moved out of the area, the insurgents would come back out to plant more IEDs. As Huysman of Alpha Company said earlier: “They’re trying to see where we’re not watching, where they can get close.”
Another day winds down in Ramadi.

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The Plot

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi national psyche is a Janus-faced beast when it comes to belief. On the one hand, Iraqis on the street will believe the very last thing you tell them. No conspiracy theory is too outlandish not to find some traction among the population. In a fit of black humor the other day I joked with A., my office manager and Y., an interpreter for us, that the Kurds were obviously behind all the suicide bombings.

Why? Because they could use a civil war between Shi’a and Sunni to claim Kirkuk and draw a green line around their territory. No one gets in from south of this line. Bingo! Instant Kurdistan. Or, alternately, if the Arabs discover this fiendish plot and counter-attack, the Kurds can set down their green line and set their pesh merga to defend their territory. Either way, they get Kirkuk and a state. Game, set, match.

Now, I don’t really believe this. But A. and Y., got into the “fun” of it, and said I should go tell a few people on the street my theory. “In two days, it will be on every front page in the country,” A. said. Y. protested that it wouldn’t be true. Ah! I countered. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It only matters if enough people believe it to be true.

Y. smiled. “Now you are thinking like an Iraqi,” he said.

And yet, tell an Iraqi that many of the problems of their country — lack of security, meddling by Iran, Shi’a-Sunni violence, Zarqawi — is a result of a cascading series of American blunders and incompetence, and they will refuse to believe it. “America put a man on the moon,” said a friend of A. as we puffed on a nargilah last night. “That America has f**ked up so much is very hard for us to accept.”

“Iraq is harder than the moon,” I said, to much amusement. But like my earlier joke about the Kurds, it was black humor, and The Plot always hovered nearby.

Robert Fisk once wrote about Lebanon that The Plot — the plans of foreign powers to defeat and humiliate Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war — was always present in his conversations with Lebanese. He joked that The Plot should have its own chair at the table at every meal, since it was always a topic of dinner conversations. Well, Iraq has the same mentality. It is inconceivable to Iraqis that America, as powerful as it is, could have bungled this place as badly as it has. Americans walked on the moon! And they can’t find Zarqawi?

It’s a fair criticism, I suppose. But it’s a frustrating phenomenon for a reporter to deal with, because getting people to tell you what’s going on without the conversation degenerating into a convoluted sequence of events is next to impossible. Today, I interviewed Sheikh Hassan Zaydan al-Luhaibi, one of the principle leaders of the National Dialogue Council, which aims to be the political arm of the “the resistance” (muqawama). I wanted to know just how much influence the United States really wields in Iraq. I know it’s more than nothing, but less than when it absolutely, completely and openly ran the place, as under the CPA.

Al-Luhaibi is a Sunni tribal leader, so he’s not friendly to the Americans by any means. He equates the Iraqi people with the muqawama, saying they’re one and the same. And to him, the Americans control everything. They have consultants in every ministry, he said (this is true), and they control everything that goes on in the ministries (this is debatable).

How then, I asked, do you explain the apparent rapprochement between Iraq and Iran? The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States. It has its tentacles in Iraq’s government. The United States is trying to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. Was he saying the Americans OKed Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi’s trip to Tehran last week? Did they approve the Iran-Iraq trade agreement being hammered out between the two governments?

Rather than resort to Occam’s Razor — that the Americans have lost control of the political situation in Iraq, that political ideologues underestimated the difficulties of “democratizing” this place, that mistake has followed mistake — he called over his old friend, The Plot. Obviously, letting Iran take over the government is what the Americans want, he said. The Americans can close the border any time they want. That they don’t have enough troops to do so never occurred to him. Like a disappearing Cheshire Cat, The Plot was hanging in the air around us, only its toothy grin giving it away.

Many times, an old friend of mine, a fixer who has gotten out of the business, has asked me if the United States has an agreement with Iran. I try to tell him that I really don’t think so, that it’s not in the U.S.’s interest to do, that an Iraq hostile to Iran is really better for America than a cozy relationship. But no, he just shakes his head and mutters that there must be an agreement. He is Sunni, so he feels his country is being taken from him and delivered to his enemies, the Shi’ites and the Iranians. (To many Sunnis, they’re the same thing.) And in his eyes, America is the country turning Iraq over to the threat it fought — with America’s support — in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

I confess, I don’t understand this mindset. I guess I don’t see how people can see America as all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing when the evidence for its helplessness is measured in a daily body count. For me, Iraq’s carnage reminds me of what Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s 1804 execution of the Duc d’Enghien: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.” But for many Iraqis, as the death toll mounts, The Plot thickens.

Splitting up Iraq?

My latest effort in explaining the ins and outs of Iraq’s constitutional process.

Here’s the latest entry on the constitutional wrangling. Many of the Sunnis on Iraq’s Constitutional Committee “are opposed to anything other than a highly centralized government”:,9171,1083936,00.html, which the Shi’ites and Kurds are equally opposed to. The Sunnis see decentralization, which is called “federalism” here, as a prelude to partitioning. The Kurds, however, say if there’s no federalism, there’s going to be war.
I tell you, at some point Iraq’s Arabs are finally going to get fed up with the Kurds and their demands and tell them not to let the door hit them on their way out. Which, of course, would suit most Kurds just fine.

Iraq’s rush to Failure

A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table; creating a founding document requires the long ordeal of reaching political compromise and building trust…. If the Shiites think they will never be able to rule the country peacefully, why shouldn’t they do what they can to rule by other means?… Not only will the document be ineffective, but the Iraqi people will see the inability to reach a real compromise as a failure of the government as a whole.

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times gets it pretty close to exactly right.

If the nascent government is able to devise a constitution by mid-next month, then they’re probably missing the point. A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table; creating a founding document requires the long ordeal of reaching political compromise and building trust. Given the intensity of conflict in Iraq, it is unlikely that broad political consensus can be achieved any time soon.

What Iraqi politicians need more than anything right now is to learn to trust each other. If the Sunnis remain convinced they’ll never get a decent shake under Shiite rule, why shouldn’t they fight? If the Kurds believe they’re better off without the rest of Iraq, why not let the country fall apart? If the Shiites think they will never be able to rule the country peacefully, why shouldn’t they do what they can to rule by other means?

At the moment, I’m cautiously optimistic, as there seem to be some movement by all three groups. The Iraqis are groping for trust in the fog of war, and it would be too easy to simply give up. Thier, director of Stanford’s Project on Failed States, advises Iraqis to take the six-month delay allowed to them under the Transitional Administrative Law, and that’s not a bad idea. I know some members of the committee and its subcommittees are grumbling that the timelines laid out in the TAL—Aug. 15 approval, Oct. 15 referendum and a Dec. 15 national election—are more in America’s interests than Iraq’s, so why not a delay?

If Iraq’s leaders end up with a constitution that looks good on paper but doesn’t reflect a real political agreement, they will have failed. Not only will the document be ineffective, but the Iraqi people will see the inability to reach a real compromise as a failure of the government as a whole. That way lies civil war.

People in the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy have all told me that the constitution is key to ending the insurgency, although they seem to differ on the timeframe. But the majority of those fighting this insurgency, Ba’athists and former regime guys, have never shown a fondness for constitutionalism before. The Ba’athists have launched two coups since 1958, and might be planning a third, so simply having a new national charter is not going to get these guys to lay down their arms. The jihadis will never stop fighting because for them, the fight is the victory and martyrdom a bonus. What’s the alternative, though? The insurgency is not going to be defeated militarily because the very actions used to “kill bad guys,” as the military likes to say makes more “bad guys.” At the moment, the political process is all that’s left.

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