The streets of Baghdad were eerily empty as police and soldiers tightened their grip in the final hours before people vote on the new constitution.
Iraqis are deeply divided. “The new constitution cuts my country up into pieces,” said Atiqa Jawad Wadi, a middle-aged secondary school teacher. “My family and I will vote ‘no’.” Alwan Jassim al-Aswad, an elderly man sitting in a coffee shop near by, was going to vote in favour of the constitution because the Shia religious hierarchy backed it. “It will help us build a new government for the Shia,” he said.
Insurgents launched two attacks on offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad and Fallujah after the Sunni party reversed its position and called for a “yes” vote. Its leaders changed their mind after a last-minute compromise brokered by the US that will allow parliament to amend the constitution next year.
There were scattered bursts of gunfire in Baghdad yesterday but these often came from frightened police and soldiers shooting in the air to stop vehicles suspected of being suicide bombers approaching them. No traffic at all will be allowed on the streets today and voters will have to go to the polling stations on foot. The ministry of the interior has given journalists and essential workers special passes enabling them to drive.
But officials helpfully point out that the security forces are likely to open fire at a vehicle long before the driver is able to show them his permit.
Most Iraqis will stay at home during the four-day holiday. Grocery stores have been crowded with people buying last-minute supplies. In Sunni districts in west Baghdad, where there has been serious fighting in recent days, all shops were shut yesterday while in the mainly Shia Karada district in east Baghdad they were still open.
“I came to Karada to do my shopping because everything in the west of the city is shut,” said Ghaith Bassim, a 23-year-old Sunni student from the Yarmouk neighbourhood. He did not like the constitution, thought it was a recipe for civil war and was intending to vote “no”. He said: “I think the Islamic Party are traitors for dealing with the government. The Iraqi government is only a toy in the hands of the Americans.”
Some 15 million Iraqis out of a population of 26 million have the right to vote. Kurdish and Shia leaders showed in the election for the National Assembly in January that they are able to mobilise their communities – three quarters of the Iraqi population – and get them to the polls.
The five million Sunni are divided, but most will probably vote “no” or abstain. In theory they can veto the constitution if two-thirds of those who vote in three out of 18 provinces are against it. This is possible since there are four provinces – Anbar, Nineveh, Salahudin and Diyala – where the Sunnis are in the majority.
Up to last week Sunnis were united in their opposition to the constitution because they oppose federalism, devolving power to Kurds and Shia. But under a deal this week the constitution can be amended by the National Assembly to be chosen in an election on 15 December. Since Sunnis are likely to vote, unlike in January when they abstained, there will be more Sunni members of parliament. New amendments will then be voted on in a second referendum.
The compromise was brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, far more skilful than previous US envoys in Iraq, who sat in on all negotiations. The US, and particularly the US military, is anxious not to do anything which would further alienate the Sunnis and lead them to give greater support to the insurgents.
The US involvement is regarded with intense suspicion by many Iraqis. “It is an American constitution written in an Iraqi hand and I believe it was prepared a long time ago,” said Sinan Yusef, an engineering student and a Christian. He did not intend to vote.
It is not clear what the Sunnis have gained by the deal this week. They are unlikely to have the votes next year to seriously change the constitution now being voted on. “I think there will be no amendments because they will not have enough members of the new assembly,” said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the National Assembly and a veteran Kurdish leader. He favoured making concessions to Sunnis to bring them on board though he believes that many problems have simply been adjourned for six months.
Another Iraqi leader lamented that once more there was only “a temporary constitution” which would be debated once again next year.
Many Iraqis say the battle to survive from day to day in the face of chronic insecurity, power cuts and poverty absorbs all their energy. They do not see this struggle as being affected by the referendum. Nabil Ibrahim Qusai, an economics graduate working as a mechanic, said “the constitution will bring me no nearer a job so I have no plans to vote”.
PATRICK COCKBURN was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year. His new memoir, The Broken Boy, has just been published in the UK.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005