Sovereignty means ruling over others, being in charge. The US, invaders and occupiers of Iraq, who called themselves liberators and democracy builders, returned sovereignty to chosen Iraqis on June 28th, 2004. The US military remained to protect the appointed government, assist security and continue rebuilding.
Sovereignty in Iraq is an instructive history.
The first ruler of Iraq whose deeds are recorded is king Etana of Kish who reigned 5,000 years ago at the beginning of the third millennium B.C. He is described as “the man who brought stability to all the lands.” It’s believed that he held sway not only over Sumer-now southern Iraq from modern Baghdad to the Persian Gulf-but also over its neighbors. The first great urban centers we know of rose in Sumer and in these city-states like Kish the cuneiform writing system was developed and spread all over the ancient Near East. Sumer is justifiably designated the “cradle of civilization.” Five thousand years ago Sumer had great political power and economic wealth and great achievements in art, monumental architecture, religious and ethical thought, oral myths, epics, and hymns. The Sumerian language (agglutinative, like that of Turkic peoples) was the prevailing tongue and the cuneiform writing an effective broad communication tool. The Sumerians also instituted a formal system of education.
Samuel Noah Kramer, the great Sumerian scholar, sees Sumerian political history dominated by the institution of kingship though originally more democratic. [See Inanna. Wolkstein & Kramer, 1983]. Kramer asserts that originally political power lay in the hands of the free citizens and a city governor know as the ensi, who was no more than a peer among peers. In vital community decisions the free citizens met in bicameral assembly consisting of an upper house of “elders” and a lower house of younger fighting men. When struggle between the various Sumerian city-states grew more bitter and violent and pressures from ‘barbaric’ peoples to the east and west intensified, military leadership became an urgent need, and the king-or as he is known in Sumerian, the lugal, “the big man”-came to the fore. Kramer says the king was probably appointed and selected by the assembly for specific military tasks at critical moments, but gradually kingship with all its privileges and prerogatives became an hereditary institution.
The power of Kish, King Etana’s city-state, waned in time and Uruk dominated in a kind of heroic era with king figures like Gilgamesh. Uruk too was vanquished, by Ur a city in southern Sumer that in biblical times came to be known as Ur of the Chaldees. Ur is the city which biblical Abram was called to leave to go to the land of Canaan (c.2000 B.C.). At the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer was defeated by a Semitic ruler named Sargon who conquered most of western Asia and established his capital in Agade (biblical Akkad), a city not far from Kish. Sumer became known by the hyphenated name Sumer-Akkad and the Semitic language Akkadian began to rival Sumerian as the living language of the land.
Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin attacked Nippur, Sumer’s most holy city and desecrated and plundered its most sacred shrine. This led to Sumer’s second catastrophic disaster-being overrun by the Gutians a barbarous people inhabiting the mountains of western Iran.
Sumer freed itself from the Gutian yoke and a king named Ur-Nammu founded a dynasty at the city of Ur, the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2050-1950 B.C.) Ur-Nammu was a capable military leader and an outstanding social reformer and lawgiver. He promulgated the first law code in recorded history. The document’s preamble boasts that he, Ur-Nammu, removed the “chiselers” and grafters from the land. He established honest weights and measures and saw to it “that the orphan did not fall prey to the wealthy, that the widow did not fall prey to the powerful, that the man of one shekel did not fall prey to the man of one mina [sixty shekels].”
Ur-Nammu was succeeded on the throne by his son Shulgi, one of the most distinguished and illustrious kings of ancient times who reigned for almost half a century. Shulgi was followed by his two sons who ruled nine years each and barely held the kingdom together. Shulgi’s grandson Ibbi-Sin, pious and trusted, was attacked by the Elamites and Amorites and was betrayed by his own governors and generals. He was finally carried off into captivity and Ur was destroyed. There was again struggle among the cities for dominance and in about 1750 B .C. Hammurabi, King of Babylon , defeated Rin-Sin, King of Larsa, and became the sole ruler of Sumer-Akkad. The date marks the end of ancient Sumer and the beginning of Babylonia. By this time the people who spoke Sumerian were virtually extinct and the Semites were in full control; the spoken language was now Semitic Akkadian. The culture remained predominantly Sumerian in form and content, however; the schools and academies continued to use Sumerian language and literature as the curriculum basis for another millennium.
Samuel Noah Kramer notes that the literary texts-one of the major 20th century contributions to the humanities- mark a terrible irony. “As the Sumerian literary documents make amply manifest, it was the competitive drive for superiority and preeminence, for victory, prestige, and glory, that provided the psychological motivation sparking the material and cultural advances for which the Sumerians are justifiably noted: large-scale irrigation, technological invention, monumental architecture, writing, education, and literature. Sad to say, this very passion for competition and success carried within it the seed of destruction and decay.” Kramer writes that over the centuries Sumer became a “sick society”-yearning for peace and constantly at war, professing ideals of justice, equity and compassion, but abounding in injustice, inequality and oppression. Kramer quotes a melancholy Sumerian poet who laments that law and order ceased to exist; cities, houses, stalls, and sheepfolds were destroyed; rivers and canals flowed with bitter waters; fields and steppes grew nothing but weeds and “wailing plants.” The mother cared not for her children, nor the father for his spouse, and nursemaids chanted no lullabies at the crib. The cities were ravaged and their people killed-a calamity “undescribable and unknown to man.”
The poet mourns the loss of civilization and human society, not imperium. One of the enormous attractions of Sumerian culture seen in its art and poetry is the human scale, the valuing of happy life and wisdom.
Sovereignty is valued and regarded as good if the king or big man brings security and justice. Etana, “brought stability to all the lands.” Ur-Nammu, a millennium later, promulgated the first law code and defended the poor and weak against the rich and predatory. Sovereignty is problematical if the lugal, “the big man” does not bring security and justice or is seen himself as a predator. Gilgamesh, a great king and builder of cities, was criticized for fighting and taking women as he wished. Saddam Hussein was hated for brutalizing his own people. The kings’ stories become their judgments and Gilgamesh’s are far better than Saddam’s.
But in Sumerian perspective kings’ stories are not the chronicles of king lists or great men. They are always about how the ruler benefits his city, brings stability and justice. The criterion is not power and domination but social efficacy. In a wonderful myth about Inanna the great Sumerian goddess of heaven and earth, Inanna journeys down the Euphrates river from her city Uruk to Eridu, city of Enki, the God of wisdom and her maternal grandfather. There she is received in the holy shrine and is given the great me, the powers of civilization-kingship, truth, lovemaking, judgments, decisions, the dark and light powers of ruling. She takes them and keeps them when Enki the next morning tries to take them back. Inanna brings them home to Uruk and presents them to the people of Sumer. All the powers of sovereignty are for her people and the powers, the me, are the wisdom to know how to act and live and deal. They bring prosperity and joy. The most ancient Iraqi concept of sovereignty is richer and more human and ideal than any other I know in human history.
Present sovereignty is poorer and cruder. The Baghdad Museum which housed the 5000-year-old alabaster Uruk Vase was ravaged while the Oil Ministry was protected. Present sovereignty has the rush of crushing, triumph, being on top. It’s marked by guns and bragging. It is not stable or just or kind to the weak.
On June 28th, 2004 at the NATO summit meeting in Istanbul, Condi Rice passed President Bush a note stating that the US had handed over the sovereignty of Iraq to Iraq. He wrote on the message which was quickly televised “Let freedom reign.”
Sovereignty is not freedom’s reign unless you can live there.