Six Weeks to Go!

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter. This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones.

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go (more or less) until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter.

There will be 15 Sunnis on the committee, picked mainly by tribal sheikhs and other respected men, and another 10 Sunni “advisors” to the committee, accounting for almost 36 percent of the 70-person committee. (There are several subcommittees working away on specific sections of the draft, but I don’t have any data on those bodies.)

This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones. At least as far as the makeup of the committee goes.

“If we were talking about ministries, names might be more important,” he said, as quoted by the New York Times. “But since it’s a committee, having the views is more important than the names.”

I’ve talked with others, close to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other Shi’ite movers and shakers, and they’re of the same mind. Some of these men are optimistic—such as the advisor to the prime minister I spoke with—while others are not. One influential Shi’a leader, who never fled Iraq during the Saddam years doesn’t think the constitution will be done on time. The other Shi’a leader, who did, is concerned that the deadline will be met, but the outcome will be less than desirable—at least for secular Iraqis.

(I’m not mentioning names because that was the deal I made with them. I hope you’ll trust me enough that these men are players, they know what they’re talking about and that they’re close to the action.)

There are a number of obstacles to making the Aug. 15 deadline, however. They are:

  1. The role of Islam in legislation;
  2. The status of Kirkuk;
  3. How much autonomy will be given to the provinces.

These were all predicted long ago, and nothing new has developed the change the issues confronting Iraq. The religious Shi’ites in charge of the government—Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and others—are close to Iran and want a more Islamist government, maybe not as severe as Tehran’s wilayat al-faqih, but certainly more Islamic than Iraqis are used to. They want Islam to be the source of legislation instead of a source of legislation.

The Kurds are, somewhat predictably, throwing a spanner in the works by insisting that status of Kirkuk be settled before the constitution is drafted, while the Shi’ites want to put off the idea until after the constitution is approved. The trouble is, the Kurds won’t approve the constitution in the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum if Kirkuk is left up in the air. They don’t really trust Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs to deal with them fairly on this emotional issue, so they’re holding out the threat of not approving the constitution as a cudgel to get their way now. Which is what they always do, and it leads to some serious brinkmanship. I suspect the Americans will step in at some point and assure the Kurds they have their back if they’ll just yield on this issue.

And as for autonomy, oh boy. This is a hot issue, and there’s a new wrinkle. Secular Shi’ites in the south, led by a Baqr Yassin, have started a push toward making the southern three provinces of Basra, Amara and Nasariyah into an autonomous zone called “Sumer,” similar to the arrangement the Kurds have now. He’s calling for local control of resources—including the vast oil reserves there—and some kind of control of military units in the region. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Jaafari crowd are opposed to such an idea, saying such a development would pose a threat to the unity of Iraq.

There are three other reason for their opposition: Turkey, Syria and especially Iran. A federal Iraq, with strong provincial governments based on ethnic or sectarian lines is seen as a threat in those three countries who all have restive Kurdish populations that have been hankering for autonomous regions of their own in line with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran, especially, would face a difficult situation—well, difficult for the mullahs—because it’s incredibly diverse. Persians make up 51 percent, Azeri 24 percent, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8 percent, Kurds 7 percent, Arabs 3 percent, Lur, Baluch and Turkmen 2 percent each and “other” make 1 percent. If “Sumer” became a reality alongside an autonomous Kurdistan—each with their own sources of petro-wealth—the Arab population of Khuzestan just across the Persian/Arabian Gulf would likely try to join them or form their own ethnic enclave. You’re looking at a scenario of a Balkanized Middle East.

The question you have to ask is why are secular Shi’ites pushing for Sumer? And why is Baqr Yassin, a former Ba’athist opposed to Saddam Hussein and allied with the Syrian branch of the party, the man to lead the movement? Because the secular Shi’ites in the south are scared to death of Iran and its suffocating brand of Islam. Already Basra, which I’m told used to be quite a party town, is populated by black-sheathed women and no liquor stores, cinemas or anything else secular Iraqis enjoy. Militias such as the Badr Organization—formerly commanded by al-Hakim, now head of SCIRI—which fought alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) control the cops. Freelance vice and morality squads roam the streets. And this is all at the urging of Iran, which has deeply infiltrated its neighbor. The old Ba’athist Yassin is fighting the Iran-Iraq war all over again—as are many of the Ba’athist insurgents who strike at Jaafari’s Shi’ite government because, they say, “It’s Iranian.” And it’s why Adnan al-Dulaimi, the custodian of Iraq’s waqf and who claims to speak for several insurgent groups, calls for Sunni participation in Iraqi politics so they can combat shu’ubiyyah, a racist term favored by Ba’athists that basically calls Iraqi Shi’ites “Persians”—although “dirty Persians” might be more accurate in its interpretation. This has enraged my Shi’ite sources.

I can’t speak to the truth of such charges. I believe that Iran is deeply, deeply involved in a great deal of mischief from the head of the Gulf all the way up to Baghdad. But men who have to know what is going on because they can get killed if they don’t are worried about the future, and what kind of country Iraq will become.

In end, it may not matter who’s on the committee to write the constitution if the three main groups can’t see past their self-interests—or their patrons’.

Constitutional Con?

I wish I could give you a good reason for that, but I don’t. After Marla’s death, I just didn’t feel like blogging for a while…. And now Iraq’s a busy place.

BAGHDAD—Hello all. We haven’t spoken in a while. I wish I could give you a good reason for that, but I can’t. After Marla’s death, I just didn’t feel like blogging for a while. It’s not like there’s been a dearth of material, however. A new government, a hell of a lot of violence, allegations of prior corruption, massive military operations… And that’s just in the last month or so. Iraq’s a busy place.

But this week, the new Iraqi government established the Constitutional Committee that will draft Iraq’s permanent constitution. It’s made up of 55 members of parliament that didn’t get tapped for Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s cabinet—which took way too long to get off the ground. Three months? I mean, c’mon. The government expires, in theory, at the end of this year anyway. These guys’ main job is supposed to be making sure all the checks get signed and the writing of a constitution. And yet, they’re acting like a permanent government, arguing over cabinet posts and putting more thought into their own political futures than the country’s. This pisses Iraqis off.

And speaking of political futures, Iyad Allawi is considering taking the chairmanship of the committee, although one of his aides told me that he’s really preparing for the next election. I told the aide that I thought being chairman of the committee might be a nice platform from which to run. True, admitted the aide, but if the process falls apart, Allawi will be blamed for that if he’s the chairman. I countered that if the process falls apart, Allawi’s going to have a lot more to worry about than his political viability—and so will Iraq.

Another name being bandied about is Houman al-Hammoudi, a political advisor to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). These two guys are handy symbols for where Iraq may be heading. If Allawi takes the chairmanship, the new constitution will likely have more American input and be more secular. If al-Hamoudi gets it, look for a stronger role for Islam and more influence from Tehran. (SCIRI still has significant ties to the Iranian regime.)

The chairman will be announced today, inshallah, so we’ll get to see where we’re going. [UPDATE 5/16/05 5:32:23 PM: The chairmanship wasn’t announced on Sunday because committee members can’t decide between al-Hammoudi and a Kurdish member.] But, in my opinion, it’s already off to a bad start. There are only two Sunnis on the committee. One suggestion to increase their representation is to shunt them off to a subcommittee ghetto, where they’ll filter up their recommendations to the main committee. Dr. Saleh Mutlak, a member of the National Dialogue Council, the hot, new political group for disenfranchised Sunnis, thinks things might be OK if Allawi is the chairman but if it’s al-Hammoudi, the marginalizing of the religious minority will be complete. This is a recipe for yet more disaster, considering the Sunnis are already suspicious that de-Ba’athification is really code for an anti-Sunni purge.

The new government and the Americans might be wise to listen to Mutlak and his compatriots on the Council. They have good ties to the Iraqi insurgency—the Ba’athists and nationalists, not the jihadis—and they’re looking for a deal. As TIME Magazine reported in February, members of the Ba’athist/nationalist insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. “We are ready,” said a top insurgent negotiator, “to work with you.” The Council is their Sinn Fein.

But talks may have broken down. Mutlak declined to confirm any negotiations, but handed me a statement yesterday that reads, in part:

What we cannot forget is the responsibility for the continuation of casualties that is borne by a blind insistence on a military solution to the insurgency. That military solution, over the course of now two long years, has proven to be clearly unreachable.

The U.S. and its Coalition partners, which created the conditions that prevail in Iraq today by its ill-advised dissolution of the Army and its sweeping de-Ba’athification edicts, should drop its “hands-off”attitude toward negotiations and political solutions and join with all of us, those in the Iraqi government and those who are outside, in the common work of finding a political solution that will end the insurgency, and bring about the new democratic Iraq that we all desire.

This tells me the talks may have broken down and that they’re looking to start them up again. Probably because the Sunnis are worried about Shi’ite revenge squads. One could argue whether they have it coming or not, but that is, in effect, arguing for civil war. So I guess the choices are let the Shi’ites and the Kurds massacre the Sunnis or talk with the former Ba’athists and bring them into the government. Your pick.

And this ties in with my current obsession: how Iraq will reconcile itself with its recent bloody past and the role of the Ba’ath Party. While many Sunni leaders stayed and took part in the regime, the current Shi’ite and Kurdish leadership spent much of the Saddam years in exile—and they have long memories of the oppression of their people by a military largely commanded by Sunni officers. So it’s no surprise that many former members of Saddam’s military think this is not only a political purge, but also a sectarian one. “They do not mean Ba’athists,” said Abu Laith (a pseudonym), a captain from Fallujah in Iraq’s new 8th Mechanized Division. “They mean Sunnis.”

Abu Laith is a former captain in Iraq’s 6th Armored Division, which was based in Basra. He chose not to fight the Americans in March 2003, when they rolled north out of Kuwait. But now he’s ready to take up arms against the new government and the Americans if talks break down and hardliners in the Jaafari government push for a purge of the security forces. “We are professional men and we know how to fight,” he said.

Losing experienced officers like Abu Laith to the insurgency is not something the Americans want to see, which is why they seem to be more open to talks than the Iraqi government. The Jaafari cabinet and the Kurds are not in a forgiving mood for a lot of reasons. But the choices are going to come to down to talking or fighting. Driving the former Ba’athists away from talks and their jobs is inviting catastrophe.

“If the government has 1,000 enemies now, they will have 10,000 enemies,” said Abu Laith. “We are fighting for our lives.”

Suicide bombing?!

Mosul appears to have been a suicide attack by Ansar al-Sunna. I’m stunned they were able to pull this off.

The Pentagon has admitted that it appears the Mosul attack was a suicide bomber. From a press release:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2004 — It appears that a suicide bomber was responsible for the attack on the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul that killed 22 people Dec. 21, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a Pentagon news briefing today.
Of the 22 dead, 13 were U.S. servicemembers, five were U.S. civilian contractors, three were Iraqi security force members and one a “non-U.S. person,” Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said. Myers briefed the press with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
A total of 69 others were wounded: 44 U.S. servicemembers, seven U.S. contractors, five Defense Department civilians, two Iraqi civilians, 10 contractors of other nationalities and one of unknown nationality and occupation. “Twenty-five of the 69 who were wounded were returned to duty,” Myers said. Others are being transported to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.
The chairman said investigators in Mosul said that at this point it “looks like it was an improvised explosive device worn by an attacker.”

Well, looks like my “lucky shot” thesis was wrong. Really wrong. I just didn’t imagine that a suicide bomber could get on a Forward Operating Base, walk into a dining hall and blow himself up.
What the hell? How the hell does this happen? He must have had help from inside, which means the Iraqis working with U.S. forces in the bases have just had their lives changed forever. Whatever bonds of trust between Iraqis working with U.S. forces have been frayed — perhaps to the breaking point.
I’m just stunned that insurgents were able to get inside and do this. This also makes the debate over whether the still-under-construction concrete dining facility was behind schedule moot. A concrete roof wouldn’t have made a whit of difference. This was an attack from inside.
How was this allowed to happen?

Options in Fallujah and about those elections…

My friend George over at Warblogging has a post today on the proposed ID system for Falujahns when they return to their shattered city. George is not amused. Here’s why he’s wrong.

My friend George over at _Warblogging_ has a post today on the proposed ID system for Fallujans when they return to their shattered city. George is not amused.
In short, the plan — as reported in “various media”:http://www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2004/12/05/returning_fallujans_will_face_clampdown/ — will mean that

troops would funnel Fallujans to so-called citizen processing centers on the outskirts of the city to compile a database of their identities through DNA testing and retina scans. Residents would receive badges displaying their home addresses that they must wear at all times. Buses would ferry them into the city, where cars, the deadliest tool of suicide bombers, would be banned.

George, and others, compare this to the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II, along with all the Nazi imagery you can imagine.
I’m not so sure I buy this. While I think the solution proposed is distasteful and highly unlikely to improve Americans’ rock-bottom standing in Iraq, I fail to see any realistic alternative. The problem is this: Fallujah was a nerve center of an insurgency that has killed U.S. soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis. (It wasn’t the brain or the hub, but it was an important staging area.) How do you let the citizens back while keeping the insurgents out while keeping it a free and open city? Well, after some thought, I think that you just can’t let it be a free and open city.
Is this a violation of Fallujans’ rights? Or course. But does the good it _might_ do for the rest of the country outweigh the bad that is done in Fallujah? That’s the question. I’m not sure what the equation is, but allowing insurgents back into Fallujah is not really an option.
The real crime here is not the requirement for Fallujans to wear ID badges or even to make the men work at reconstruction. The real crime is that poor planning and wishful thinking regarding the future of 25 million people has narrowed the universe of available options to a series of iron-fisted tactics that range from horrible to truly catastrophic.
The straitjacket election schedule isn’t helping matters either. Again, all the options are bad. Holding elections on Jan. 30 means that the Sunnis — about 20 percent of the country — will be excluded from a process that will result in a permanent constitution. This is not a scenario that suggests stability, even if Sunni members of the new 275-seat national parliament are somehow appointed. If the elections aren’t seen as legitimate by the Sunnis, they won’t see the resulting Constitution as legitimate, either. Can you say continued insurgency?
But postponing the elections is a non-starter, too, because the Shi’a will be royally pissed off. Sistani and the rest of the _merjariya_, the Shi’a religious leadership, have been working on elections for months. Dawa, SCIRI and Bayt al-Shi’a have been organizing and getting their lists together. They are fully expecting to win the elections and take the majority of seats in Parliament and form a new government.
But the stability in the Shi’a areas is tenuous. There are signs the Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army may be moving into positions to cause trouble again. Any moves to postpone what the Shi’a regard as their rightful opportunity to finally assert their control over Iraq as the majority party could be the trigger that starts a new insurgency. And with the rumors that Shi’a militia have formed to exact revenge on Sunni militia, you have yet another seed for sectarian conflict. There are real reasons for concern.
(Aside: The newly formed Shi’a militia, it is said, has a wicked cool name: The Fury Brigade.)
Sistani was only reluctantly persuaded to drop the idea of direct elections in June this year after U.N. special representative Lakdar Brahimi convinced him it wasn’t possible. Could he be persuaded a second time? I don’t know. I have hope that he could be, as he’s not completely unreasonable and the prospect of an election day carnage with Shi’a as the bulk of the victims might be too much for him to take.
Brahimi has said the country is in no shape for elections and many Sunni groups are pleading for postponement. But Dr. Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Election Commission in Iraq, told me that elections would not be postponed for “any” reason. Well, he allowed, maybe if an earthquake destroyed every city in Iraq, “including this convention center,” then maybe they would delay the elections. Or if all the planes carrying the ballots crashed and burned, they might delay the vote for five days to print new ones.
That Farid sure is a jokester.
[UPDATE: One commenter said the U.S. should just pull out, which is the same position that “George holds”:http://www.warblogging.com/archives/000991.php. I disagree and the spectre of civil is “why.”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000807.php#000807 (Read down a bit.) In short, civil war on top of a major source of the world’s oil supply would mean astronomical oil prices, possible collapse of the U.S. — and world — economy and regional conflict that could lead to Turkish and Iranian interventions. Does that sound fun? I didn’t think so. And that’s not even considering the human cost.]
For what it’s worth, I think the elections will be postponed a while — and I even have $5 riding on the decision — even though there’s no legal framework to postpone them. That may just be my still-intact naïveté that with an insecure situation that would see 20 percent or so of the country disenfranchised and the fears of a high body-count, the U.S. and its allies in Iraq won’t be so obstinate to force flawed elections down Iraqis’ throats. I’m fully prepared to be wrong and pay that $5. I just hope the Iraqis and the Americans are prepared to pay a much higher price.
So you see why I’m not up in arms over the plight of the poor Fallujans. The problems of Iraq are so huge that forced name badges in one town are just the symbols of a much greater problem — which is poor planning, sectarian tensions and unrealistic expectations from a country that may be ungovernable except under a dictatorship. Don’t diminish the horrors of the Nazis by such facile comparisons. The Holocaust was policy; the Tragedy of Iraq is a series of horrific blunders.

Sistani is ill

Sistani is ill, the south is in flames — again — and Baghdad is on edge. It’s been a bad week in Iraq.

While the Shi’a south seems to be on the verge of conflagration, Baghdad and elsewhere is rife with rumors that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is dying of a heart problem. He has been flown to Beirut and will continue on to London for treatment. From his office in Los Angeles:

Due to many calls, inquiring about the health of our grand scholar, Ayatollah Seyyid Seestani [sic], please be informed that he is sick with a heart problem and is under the supervision of several medical specialists. We hope that they send us a report about his well being as soon as possible.
As we thank all of those who are asking about his health, we urge all the Mo’mens to raise their hands in supplication to the Almighty Allah swt to bestow upon him health and shade him with total protection as soon as possible.
It should also be known that the Ummah of Islam, particularly the Shi’a, are in dire need for his presence in this sensitive era, the time that requires brave stands and honorable decrees.
Peace and blessings be upon you all.

Predictably, a representative for Sistani in Baghdad, Sheikh Jalaladin al-Sagheer, claimed to know nothing about anything, but would get back to me.
Despite al-Sagheer’s studied cluelessness, Sistani’s flight out of the country indicates his health condition is indeed very serious, because he hasn’t left his home in Najaf in years. His reclusiveness is, in part, a source of his authority, lending him an oracular air.
This news of his health problems first broke yesterday, but the continued fighting in Najaf, where the ayatollah lives, has made getting medical attention to him difficult. He’s in critical condition, my Shi’a friends say, possibly on his death bed. Dijla Radio, a local station here, is reporting that he’s suffered a severe heart attack. But so far, no one in Baghdad really seems to know the full situation. All anyone is sure of is that if Sistani dies, the fighting in the south could get a lot worse as Moqtada al-Sadr and other leaders in the Shi’a community jockey for power.
Juan Cole, who knows a lot more about this than I do, says this:

It is not clear that the other three grand ayatollahs have Sistani’s high opinion of parliamentary democracy rooted in popular sovereignty. He would probably be succeeded by Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi and distant cousin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI certainly does not have a long-term commitment to democracy, though Muhammad Said al-Hakim has never identified with that party himself. The other two possible successors are Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani, and Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan. Bashir Najafi is more vehemently anti-American than Sistani. Another contender is Sayyid Kadhim al-Haeri, sometimes called the “fifth grand ayatollah”, who is still in exile in Qom. He is a follower of Iran’s Khomeini and a radical reactionary on social issues. He had been Muqtada al-Sadr’s mentor but has broken with him.

While Moqtada’s Mahdi Army can be fairly well relied upon to attack Coalition forces, al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade (the military arm of SCIRI) might be persuaded to help settle the inter-Shi’a rivalries by taking on Moqtada’s boys. The Badr Brigade is the largest militia in Iraq after the Kurdish pesh merga, numbering around 10,000 men.
Meanwhile, I’m hearing reports from my fixers of fighting in Basra, Amarra, Najaf, Karbala, Nasariyah, Sadr City and the al-Shu’lah and al-Sha’ab ‘hoods in Baghdad.
A., my old friend, tells me four British troops have been killed in Basra and that Amarra is completely controlled by the Mahdi Army. He went to Karbala yesterday to visit friends of his and saw three mosques filled with “thousands” of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, Strella SAMs and more Kalashnikovs than he could count. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has apparently used the two-month cease fire to regroup, train and purchase more weapons from Iran, and it’s likely that a lot more mosques than those three in Karbala have been turned into arms depots.
Things in Iraq have taken a radically bad turn, in my opinion, and the postponement of the national conference seems a bit of a storm in a teacup in comparison. The Americans and the Iraqi Interim government have bigger problems — e.g., another two-front insurgency — than whether a veneer of legitimacy will be slathered on by the seating of an Interim National Council.