Write us!

April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

Left, Right, Turn Back!

By Robert Fisk

The better things are the worse they get, as history is made in Iraq.

They used King Feisel’s old table to sign the document, the desk upon which Winston Churchill’s choice as monarch once tried—not very successfully, it has to be said—to rule Iraq.

It was supposed to be a special day in Iraqi history. Twenty-five local leaders—most television reports spared viewers the uncomfortable “American-appointed” qualification, dutifully signed their new and temporary constitution. Veiled ladies and tribal sheikhs, some good men and true but also a convicted fraudster, Ahmed Chalabi, scribbled their signatures in front of the U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer on Monday.

You could almost hear him sighing in relief. For the constitution—it is only temporary and contains plenty of unanswered questions—is supposed to be America’s get-out clause. As long as the 25 men and women signed their names, Washington could hand over “sovereignty” to them on June 30, well before U.S. presidential elections in November. That, at least, is the plan.

On Monday we were spared the string quartet and the children’s choir of last week’s aborted ceremony—but not the violence.

For many Baghdadis, the day began as it did for me, instinctively ducking as a tremendous explosion clappered over the city. I was trying to make a phone call when the first rocket exploded on the police station near Andalos Square. I heard the firing of the weapon, a dull thump, and then the swish of the missile overhead.

By the time I reached the cops’ headquarters, the road was packed with angry young men and screaming ambulances. There was another thump and another powerful impact as a second rocket hit a civilian home in a cloud of grey smoke.

At the Ibn el-Nafis Hospital, the little boy wounded in the house was writhing in agony, next to Sergeant Abbas Jalil Hussein of the Iraqi police force.

“I was just washing my hands in order to say my morning prayers,” he said. “I heard this tremendous noise, and then I felt the blood on my leg and realized I was wounded.” At this point, a member of the hospital’s management—under the standing instructions of the American-appointed health minister—interrupted to say I had no business to be in the ward. This wasn’t the day to be reporting on suffering Iraqis, certainly not a day for dangerous folk like journalists to be counting the statistics of violence.

So I set off to the home of an Iraqi businessman, a Christian, to watch America’s dreams come true, praying he would have electricity to power his television set. His generator thumped out just enough juice to run it. The screen dipped and waved and shimmered, but there they were, one by one, stepping up to King Feisel’s chair, applauded and beaming, unelected men and women of the Governing Council signing a temporary constitution which, in theory at least, guarantees freedom of speech and assembly: a flurry of brown robes, sparkling pens, blue suits and veils.

Most Iraqis are more interested in electricity than constitutions, which may be one reason why the details of this particular document have not exactly been discussed in the street.

They should have been.

We still don’t know, for example, whether the Kurds will have a veto on any new government decisions. The original document stipulated that two thirds of voters in any three provinces could have a veto. The Kurds control three provinces in the north, two of which, according to the dominant Shia population, contain only a majority of 500,000 people. This was one of the reasons why old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani objected to the signing. Will the Shia community’s 60 percent of the entire Iraqi population really be represented by a new government? Will they get three members of their particular faith into a five-man rotating presidency or one in a three-man presidency, which Monday’s signing seemed to represent?

Iraqis have been puzzled by the clause allowing Iraqis two passports and the right of restitution of property if they have been exiled. Did this refer to opponents of Saddam or the tens of thousands of Jewish Iraqis driven from Baghdad more than four decades ago? Were Israelis born in Baghdad to be given Iraqi passports and return? Why shouldn’t they, I asked my Christian friend? Fair enough, he said. But would the Americans then support the return of Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948?

In the end, the signing ceremony was pomp without much circumstance. Bremer—the man who was supposed to be an expert in “counter-terrorism” when he was appointed by President Bush and is reported as saying that he will retire on June 30—sent a letter of congratulations to the 25 men and women.

Then came the usual off-the-record briefings from his spokespersons. We could expect more violence now the document had been signed. There would be an increase in attacks up to June 30. It was the same old story: the better things are, the worse they get.

The Independent, March 10, 2004





Write us