Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Saturday, October 15, 2005
The Referendum...
So the referendum is tomorrow- well, technically speaking, today.

We’ve been having more than the usual power outages. Government officials were saying ‘power problems’, ‘overload’, etc. for the last two days and then suddenly changed their minds today and claimed it was ‘sabotage’. It’s difficult to tell. All we know is that large parts of Baghdad are literally in the dark. We’re currently on generator electricity. Water has been cut off for the last two days with the exception of an occasional dribble that lasts for ten to fifteen minutes from a faucet in the garden. We have a nice big pot under it to catch as much water as possible.

Private cars haven’t been allowed to drive in the streets since Thursday- this will last until Sunday. It’s been declared a ‘holiday’ of sorts. Everyone is at home. In spite of these security measures, there were several explosions today.

The referendum promises to be somewhat confusing. People are saying it should be postponed. Now is not the right time. More changes were made a few days ago to the supposed ‘final’ draft of the constitution- the one that was submitted to the UN. It was allegedly done to appease Sunnis.

The trouble is that it didn’t address the actual problems Iraqis have with the constitution (Sunnis and Shia alike). The focus of negotiations by ‘Sunni representatives’ seemed to revolve around Iraq’s Arab identity and de-Ba’athification. A clause has also been added which says that the constitution will be subject to change (quelle surprise! Yet again!) with the new government after the next elections. That doesn’t make me feel better because changes can work both ways: if the next ‘elected’ government is, again, non-secular, pro-Iran, the amendments made to what is supposed to be a permanent constitution will be appalling.

Iraq’s Arab identity, due to its Arab majority, won’t be reduced just because it isn’t stated over and over again in a constitution. It’s as if the people negotiating the constitution chose to focus on the minute, leaving the more important issues aside. Issues like guaranteeing Iraq’s unity and guaranteeing that it won’t be turned into an Islamic state modeled on Iran.

The referendum is only hours away and the final version of the constitution still hasn’t reached many people. Areas with a Sunni majority are complaining that there aren’t polling stations for kilometers around- many of these people don’t have cars and even if they did, what good would it do while there’s a curfew until Sunday? Polling stations should be easily accessible in every area.

This is like déjà vu from January when people in Mosul and other Sunni areas complained that they didn’t have centers to vote in or that their ballot boxes never made it to the counting stations.

American media is trying to make it sound like Sunnis have suddenly been mollified with the changes made in a flurry of covert meetings these last few days, but the reality is that the only Sunni party openly supporting the constitution is the Iraqi Islamic Party which represents a very, very small percentage of Sunnis.

Most educated Iraqis want to vote against the constitution. This makes the fact that Iraqis abroad aren’t being allowed to vote this time around worrisome. Why was it vital for them to vote for a temporary government back in January but it’s not necessary for them to contribute to this referendum which will presumably decide a permanent constitution for generations and generations of Iraqis? Could it be that the current Iranian inclined government knew that many Iraqis abroad didn’t like the constitution because of federalism, women’s rights, and the mention of no laws to be placed which contradict Islam?

Iraqis are going to be voting according to religious clerics and, in some areas, tribal sheikhs. They aren’t going to be voting according to their convictions or their understanding of what is supposed to be a document that will set the stage for Iraqi laws and regulations. Juan Cole wrote about an example of this with Muqtada Al-Sadr’s followers:

The young Shiite nationalist, Muqtada al-Sadr, advised his followers to consult the ruling of Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri (resident in Qom, Iran) concerning how to deal with the constitution. He said that this was an issue that required independent juridical reasoning (ijtihad).

That’s all we need- it’s not enough that Zalmay Khalilzad is gushing over the constitution- all we need now is another cleric (stationed in Iran this time) to influence the masses.

Ok- it’s almost dawn and I’m exhausted. I wasn't able to connect all day to post this.

Monday, October 03, 2005
Constitution Conversations...
I went to sit in the garden to peruse two different versions of the draft constitution. It was 7 pm and the electricity had just gone out for the sixth time that day. There was no generator because people usually allow their generators to rest during the evenings- the sun is on its way to setting so while it’s still light outside, the heat is bearable.

In the yards of most Iraqi houses, there is often an old, rusting swing large enough for three adults (or five children). The swing is usually iron with white, peeling paint, and its seat is covered with dusty mats or cushions so that one doesn’t rise from it with a grid-like pattern on ones backside from the crisscross of the thin iron bars.

Our summers and springs in Iraq revolve around those sofa-like swings or ‘marjuha’. As the summer comes to an end, Iraqis often have their evening tea outside in the garden, in the waning afternoon light, with plastic chairs gathered around the swing and a folding table in the center. At night, when the electricity goes out and the generator can’t be turned on, we gather outside and sit on the swing, careful to keep bare legs and feet high enough to avoid insects lurking in the grass.

When adults want to have a confidential conversation far from curious ears- you can find them out on the swing. During family gatherings, when the cousins want to hang out and gossip away from the prying eyes of their parents, they’ll be on the swing. Every family member has a photo on the swing- and every child has at some point fallen off of it.

So four weeks ago, I went out to the swing carrying two different versions of the draft constitution. Though the electricity had gone out, it was still too early to light the kerosene lamps indoors. After beating the dust out of the striped cushions and making myself comfortable, I began with the Arabic version of the constitution.

I had been reading for five minutes when a rustling sound in one of the trees caught my attention. It was coming from the ‘tooki’ tree near the wall separating our garden from our neighbor’s driveway. The tree is on our side of the wall, but more than half of its branches extend over to Abu F.’s side.

I don’t know the name for tooki in English, but it can best be described as a berry-like fruit. It’s either deep purple in color- bordering on black- or red or white. The fruit, when ripe, is both sweet and sour all at once. Our tooki tree is the red tooki type and while the fruit is lovely, it also stains everything it touches. Umm F. (Abu F.’s wife) constantly complains of it staining their driveway. Every once in a while, she revolts against the tree and attacks it, armed with a large pair of rusting hedge clippers.

This thought occurred to me as I focused on the rustling leaves and sure enough- a moment later- I saw the hedge clippers rise ominously from behind the wall clutched in a pair of hands. Snap, snap, crunch… and a medium sized branch fell towards their driveway.

“Umm F.!!!” I called out exasperated from my seat on the swing, “Again??? I thought we agreed last week you’d stop cutting the branches!!!”

The clippers paused in mid-air, like some exotic, mechanical bird with its beak open. They lowered slowly and a head took their place. Since the wall is about 180 cm high, I could tell Umm F. was standing on the pile of bricks she stacked adjacent to the wall. We had a similar pile of bricks under the tree, and we used our respective brick piles when we needed to communicate with each other over the wall.

“My driveway is a mess!” She called back to me, “You know we haven’t had proper water for a week… how am I supposed to clean it? This cursed tooki tree…” She waved her clippers in the air to emphasize her frustration.

“Well it wasn’t cursed when you made tooki jam last month!” I got up and walked to the wall to face her. In one hand, I had the Arabic version of the draft constitution (Version 2.0) and in the other I was clutching the New York Times English version and fanning myself with it furiously.

“So Umm F., did you have a look at the constitution yet?” I asked casually, trying to change the subject.

“Well, Abu F. read me some of it from one of the newspapers last week or the week before…” Came the disinterested reply. She raised the clippers and furtively snapped away at a couple of branches.

“And what do you think?” I was curious. I had my own ideas about the constitution back then but I wanted to hear hers.

“I don’t care. They’ve written it and they’ll ratify it- what does it matter what I think? Is it my father’s constitution (qabil distoor bayt abooyeh?)?”

I frowned and tried to hand her the Arabic version. “But you should read it. READ IT. Look- I even highlighted the good parts… the yellow is about Islam and the pink is about federalism and here in green- that’s the stuff I didn’t really understand.” She looked at it suspiciously and then took it from me.

I watched as she split the pile of 20 papers in two- she began sweeping the top edge of the wall with one pile, and using the other pile like a dustpan, she started to gather the wilted, drying tooki scattered on the wall. “I don’t have time or patience to read it. We’re not getting water- the electricity has been terrible and Abu F. hasn’t been able to get gasoline for three days… And you want me to read a constitution?”

“But what will you vote?” I asked, watching the papers as they became streaked with the crimson, blood-like tooki stains.

“You’ll actually vote?” She scoffed. “It will be a joke like the elections… They want this constitution and the Americans want it- do you think it will make a difference if you vote against it?” She had finished clearing the top edge of the wall of the wilting tooki and she dumped it all on our side. She put the now dusty, took- stained sheets of paper back together and smiled as she handed them back, “In any case, let no one tell you it wasn’t a useful constitution- look how clean the wall is now! I’ll vote for it!” And Umm F. and the hedge clippers disappeared.

It occurred to me then that not everyone was as fascinated with the constitution as I was, or as some of my acquaintances both abroad and inside of the country were. People are so preoccupied trying to stay alive and safe and just get to work and send their children off to school in the morning, that the constitution is a minor thing.

The trouble is that as the referendum gets nearer, interest seems to diminish. We see the billboards and the commercials on various channels all about the ‘distoor’ and we hear the radio programs and the debates on channels like Arabiya and Jazeera, but there isn’t real public involvement.

In August, there was more enthusiasm about the referendum. It was taken for granted that the Kurds, and Shia affiliated with SCIRI or Da’awa, would vote in the referendum. It was surprising, however, when the Association of Muslim Scholars (influential Sunni group) started what could almost be called a campaign encouraging Sunnis (and Shia) to vote against the constitution. The reasons they gave were that federalism, at this time and under the circumstances, would contribute to the division of Iraq, and also that the constitution encouraged secular and ethnic friction.

For a few weeks, there was actual interest on the part of Sunnis, especially in rural areas, to take part in the referendum. There were arguments about whether the referendum should be boycotted like the elections or whether it was the duty of Iraqis in general to vote it down.

And then the military operations on Sunni areas like Tel Afar, Ramadi, Qaim and Samarra began once again. The feeling has been that Sunni areas are being intentionally targeted prior to the referendum to keep Sunnis from voting. When your city is under fire, and you’ve been displaced with your family to some Red Crescent tent in the middle of the desert, the last thing you worry about is a constitution.

Sunnis are being openly threatened by Badir’s Brigade people and the National Guard. Two days ago, in ‘Ras il Hawash’ in the area of A’adhamiya in Baghdad, National Guard raided homes as an act of revenge because prior to the raid, they were attacked in A’adhamiya. People from the area complain that every home they raided, windows were broken, doors kicked in, tables overturned, people abused and money and valuables looted.

In places like Tel Afar and Qaim, dozens of civilians have been killed or wounded and conveniently labeled ‘insurgents’ so that people in the US and UK can sleep better at night. Residents of Tel Afar who left the town returned to their homes to find many of them only rubble and to find family and friends dead or wounded. I read one report that said all civilians were evacuated before the military operation. That isn’t true. Many residents didn’t have cars or transport to leave the city and were forced to stay behind. Some weren’t allowed out of it.

Now, as the US troops attack a little village on the Syrian border, we hear reports that the civilians are heading towards Syria. Not Arab fighters, nor insurgents- ordinary men, women and children who feel that the Iraqi government cannot shelter them or give them refuge from the onslaught of occupation forces.

What is more disturbing is the fact that most of the people who do want to vote, will vote for or against the constitution based not on personal convictions, but on the fatwas and urgings of both Sunni and Shia clerics. The Association of Muslim Scholars is encouraging people to vote against it, and SCIRI and Da’awa are declaring a vote for the constitution every Muslim’s duty. It’s hardly shocking that Sistani is now approving it and encouraging his followers to vote for it. (If I were an Iranian cleric living in south Iraq, I’d vote for it too!)

It is utterly frustrating to talk to someone about the referendum- whether they are Sunni or Shia or Kurd- and know that even before they’ve read the constitution properly, they’ve decided what they are going to vote.

Women’s rights aren’t a primary concern for anyone, anymore. People actually laugh when someone brings up the topic. “Let’s keep Iraq united first…” is often the response when I comment about the prospect of Iranian-style Sharia.

Rights and freedoms have become minor concerns compared to the possibility of civil war, the reality of ethnic displacement and cleansing, and the daily certainty of bloodshed and death.

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