Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2005
Issue No. 759
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The storms gather

Last week, which witnessed major tragedies in both Baghdad and southern coastal states of the US, might yet be the turning point in the Iraqi conflict, writes Hana Al-Bayaty

Just when the United States anti-war movement had found a focus for its energies in Cindy Sheehan, hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf of Mexico to expose the real nature of the Bush administration and the dangers of its plans for "full spectrum dominance".

The American people discovered, perhaps to their astonishment, that their successful economy had created an underclass of millions of disenfranchised citizens, the majority of them African-Americans.

In the name of the war on terror, the Bush administration had left the homeland extremely vulnerable to such a disaster, with overstretched military and civil resources unable to respond with the necessary speed in the aftermath of the storm. Facing a growing political crisis over its response to hurricane Katrina the White House can at least play on the fact that it was a natural disaster and as such could not be avoided. Faced the death of thousands of pilgrims on the Al-A'ema Bridge the Iraqi government has no such excuse. Instead, it rushed to blame the Iraqi Resistance for spreading rumours of an imminent suicide attack among the crowds of Shias heading for the shrine of Imam Moussa Al-Kadhim. More than 1,000 worshippers were trampled underfoot or drowned in the Tigris in the ensuing panic.

This procession cannot have taken the authorities by surprise. It is an annual event that could have been well planned and organised in advance. By allowing the estimated 1.5 million worshippers to use only one of the eight bridges available, and by setting up innumerable roadblocks, the authorities seem to have been courting with chaos.

The question needs to be asked why a Shia-led government would place such obstacles in the path of a Shia procession?

Whatever US and Iraqi officials argue, the majority of Iraqis remain opposed to sectarianism and, by extension, federalism. According to a July 2005 survey conducted by the International Republican Institute 69 per cent of Iraqis from across the country want the constitution to establish "a strong central government" while only 22 per cent want it to give "significant powers to regional governments". Even in the south, with its majority Shia population, 25 per cent want federalism while 66 per cent reject it.

Against such a background last week's procession had assumed political as well as religious significance as Shias from Al-Kadhomiyah opposed to occupation joined forces with Sadrists in a display of unity against federalism and the draft constitution.

Al-Kadhomiyah is one of Baghdad's oldest Shia quarters. In 1920 the district became synonymous with the struggle against the British occupation. Sheikh Jawad Mahdi Al-Khalessi of Al-Kadhomiyah, head of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress, the umbrella grouping of secular and religious anti-occupation movements allied with the Muslim Scholars Association, fits in with the area's traditional opposition to oppression. Sadr city, a much newer district, with a population of two million made up mostly of rural migrants the majority of whom are supporters of Moqtada Al-Sadr, is another centre of opposition to the occupation. In recent weeks Al-Sadr has organised massive gatherings, sometimes attracting 200,000 people opposed to sectarianism and partition. He had called on his followers to participate in last Wednesday's procession and join forces with their brothers in Al-Kadhomiyah.

Al-Kadhomiyah shrine has been subjected to mortar fire. Who is behind such attacks, though, remains a moot point. The patriotic Iraqi resistance is unlikely to open fire on people in sympathy with their aims, and both the Iraqi National Foundation Congress and the Sadrists, despite opting for alternative methods of struggle, both recognise the legitimacy of the Iraqi resistance.

The speed with which the Iraqi government accused the Sunni resistance of spreading the rumours suggests that it is attempting to use this tragic event to further divide the Iraqi population. The fact that people of all confessions rushed to the scene in an attempt to save lives may yet confound this attempt.

While the Sunni residents of Al-Adhamiyah struggled to save the lives of their compatriots, thousands of citizens in the levelled city of Falluja organised blood donation centres in mosques.

The fall out from the tragedy may cost the Iraqi government dear. Already facing the refusal of Sunni representatives to endorse the draft constitution, Moqtada Al-Sadr will now lend his weight behind the campaign in the forthcoming referendum. Indeed, he has already urged his followers not only to reject the draft but to boycott the referendum until an independent international investigation has determined the causes of the tragedy. He holds the occupying power, and their puppet government, responsible for the deaths, since under international law they are charged with providing security for citizens.

While 82 separate groups have already declared their opposition to the draft, informal negotiations are continuing over the phrasing of the document. The government knows that as it stands the constitution has little hope of gaining public acceptance in the referendum.

The majority of Iraqis are opposed to federalism, but it remains unclear who will vote in the referendum since no census of the population has been conducted, and thousands of people have been displaced since the illegal invasion. It is equally unclear what they will be voting for since changes and amendments are likely to be added to the draft currently being circulated.

When Al-Ahram Weekly raised these concerns with James Jeffrey, senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice, he said the US administration was, "at the end of the day", only seeking to assist Iraq's sovereign government. "The administration advised the government to conduct a national census of the population before submitting the draft for a referendum, but the security situation did not permit it," he said.

In other words this sovereign government, which cannot conduct a census, facing intense US pressure to meet the timetable imposed by Washington, has declared itself confident enough to consult the population on a document that will shape Iraq's future for generations to come.

Iraqi objections to the draft constitution are unlikely to weigh heavy on the Bush administration, however, since the draft fulfills two of its goals. The constitution ensures that Iraq will be composed of three weak and conflicting protectorates under US military, economic and political control, and that its natural wealth will be open to privatisation.

"The state shall guarantee," reads Article 25, "the reform of the Iraqi economy according to modern economic bases, in a way that ensures complete investment of its resources, diversifying its sources and encouraging and developing the private sector."

It is perfectly possible that the constitution will be adopted even though a majority of the population opposes it. The referendum is likely to be conducted along the lines of the January elections, characterised by a campaign of intimidation through massive military operations, with international observers allowed access to just five carefully selected polling stations.

Forcing through the constitution against the popular will can serve only to lend greater legitimacy to the opposition and could result in a popular uprising.

The struggle of the Iraqi people to recover their sovereignty has already derailed the "political process" and prevented the normalising of the occupation. For the Bush administration hurricane Katrina. in exposing the unsavoury flip side of the American dream, could not have come at a worse time. In revealing the contempt in which this administration holds human life even within its own boundaries it could lead to a draining away of domestic support for the "war on terror" and finally defeat the neo-conservative agenda.

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