Echoes of Oslo

Iraq’s Constitutional debate is a symptom of a country with an equally profound identity problem

Mark Levine

Violence has become the defining dynamic of Iraqi politics.

It is somewhat fitting that the complex and tension-filled process of completing Iraq’s first democratically” drafted constitution should occur at the same time that Israel is withdrawing its settlers and soldiers permanently from the Gaza Strip. Both are taking place in the context of a post‑9/​11, militarized neoliberalism that has created conditions of chaos in Palestinian and Iraqi societies. In such an environment, lasting political progress will require far more than what is symbolized by these two potentially momentous events. 

In fact, as this article was being written, the constitutional negotiators had been granted a week’s extension to finish their work, so it’s impossible to present a concrete discussion of the constitution’s details. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was indeed underway, but even there the prospects of peace remain dim unless Prime Minister Sharon is willing to match that withdrawal with a near complete relinquishment of the West Bank and a compromise on Palestinian refugees and rights to Jerusalem. The reality is that for the average Iraqi or Palestinian, the new constitution, or the withdrawal of settlers and troops, will most likely not improve their lives unless they constitute the first steps in a much broader process of demilitarization and the creation of a real legal and political framework for peace, equality, independence and sustainable development. 

Another fitting reason for the coalescing of the two events is the potential for the Iraqi constitutional process to repeat the understandable but disastrous strategy of Oslo – reach agreements on vague and high-sounding principles, but leave the tough questions for a later date, when developments on the ground will (hopefully) invest the reconciliation process with enough momentum for compromises on issues that were off the table at the start. 

Despite the abject failure of the Oslo method of conflict resolution, it is hard to imagine Sunnis, who have lost so much they have little left to lose, Shi’ites, who have gained unprecedented power and have little reason to compromise, and Kurds, most of whom want an independent Kurdistan (and who can blame them?), making the hard compromises that would be necessary to secure a united and peaceful Iraq. And so the Oslofication of Iraqi politics will likely be the reality for the near future.

But what are the most contentious areas of concern? From mainstream press reports and discussions by American policy-makers and politicians of various factions, it seems that they include whether Iraq will have a truly federal (as opposed to centralized) political structure, what the role of Islam will be in the formation of law, how much equality women will have compared with the existing and quite liberal laws passed in 1959, and whether Kurdistan will be allowed to absorb oil-rich Kirkuk into its autonomous provinces. Indeed, as I traveled through Iraq in the late winter and early spring of 2004, these issues were already foremost on the minds of the various leaders, commentators, and average citizens with whom I met. 

For example, when I met Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the leader of the Sunni Muslim Ulama Council, he menacingly threatened massive violence against the Kurds (not to mention killing all the infidels”) if Kurdistan was given too much independence and the United States didn’t quickly leave the country. More seemingly moderate religious leaders and commentators – Shi’ite as well as Sunni – were equally up in arms over the threat of extensive Kurdish autonomy, which they viewed as a pretext to independence. Yet Kurds will accept nothing less. This leaves only one option for finishing the Constitution: Leave the status of Kurdistan, and Kirkuk in particular, vague enough so that it can be interpreted according to the desires of each side’s constituents. But the interests of the two constituents – Arabs and Kurds – will likely be as irreconcilable in two years as they are today. Kurdish national interests will always trump their broader, and for decades, forcibly imposed, national” Iraqi identity.

What is interesting here then is not the Kurdish position, but the Shi’ite one. No doubt a compromise will be reached over the recently announced desire by some Shi’ite leaders for the Shi’ite southern half of the country to be granted a similar level of autonomy as desired by the Kurds. This would effectively guarantee them the lion’s share of the country’s oil revenues, and leave the Sunnis with the crumbs of the national petroleum pie (there are few oil fields in Sunni Iraq). Such a position, however, is a significant departure from the near unanimity between Sunnis and Shi’ites over the need for a continued strong central state in Iraq as a measure of security against the eventual fragmentation of the country that I heard during my time in the country sixteen months ago.

Whatever language is approved in order to paper over the emerging Sunni-Shi’ite split over federalism in the near term, it is clear that the U.S. program of neoliberalizing Iraqi political culture, and thereby weakening the central state (which is, of course, good for foreign corporations seeking to gain access to much of the resources presently under state control), has had its intended effect. The problem is, the main beneficiaries of an autonomous Shi’ite mega-province in the south could well wind up being Iran, not the United States. Yet considering how destructive and intrusive the heavily centralized Baathist state was for most Kurdish and Shi’ite Iraqis, who can blame them for supporting a weakened centralized state as a guarantee for their security and prosperity? This is the conundrum that the constitution or subsequent legislation must eventually solve: How to rein in an historically oppressive state while preserving the level of services and distribution of wealth that once made Iraq the envy of the developing world?

Turning to the role of Islam and the status of women in Iraq, during the last year, most religious leaders have consciously fudged their position on Islam’s role in Iraq’s future constitution. Equally fudged has been the related stance on whether women should be given full legal equality to men or be subject to the majority interpretations of shar’ia, or Islamic law, that limit their rights and enshrine male patriarchal domination in various ways (rights to divorce, inheritance, freedom of movement, punishments for adultery, etc.). They knew that this was a key issue of concern for western governments, media and human rights organizations, and that advocating for too strong a political role for Islam and too many restrictions on women’s freedoms would raise the ire of politicians and feminists around the world. 

Thus Article 12 of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), written under the strong influence of the American occupation authorities (CPA), specifically gives women broadly equal rights to men, preserving a social and political position first achieved with the 1959 Constitution. However, now that Iraq is technically sovereign and religious leaders are the most powerful political force in the country, the male dominated political-religious establishment has much more leeway to impose a de facto, if not de jure, system of discrimination against women. 

By this I mean that even if political pressure – internal as well as external – forces them to leave the relatively liberal interpretation of Islam and women’s rights in the TAL largely intact, unless there is a powerful change in the culture, such rights and freedoms will likely be honored in the breach rather than as the norm. As women around the Middle East – indeed, around the world – are well aware, laws mean little if the culture continues to support their oppression. Whatever the constitution says, if women don’t have the ability to participate in the public sphere and international pressure to ensure their rights doesn’t remain steadfast, then the social rights they enjoyed under Hussein’s otherwise brutal and oppressive régime will be lost in the process of Iraq’s becoming a more democratic” and free” country.

This was truly brought home to me when I left a meeting with the outspoken secular feminist activist Yanar Muhammad, head of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Muhammad is well know for her constant railing against the excesses of Iraq’s dominant patriarchal and conservative religious culture, and even many women activists I met in Iraq disapproved of her outspokenness and aggressive – that is, male” – style even as they shared many of her political aims. As we left her heavily protected office, a soft-spoken seemingly secular Shi’ite schoolteacher who accompanied me to the meeting (and who the night before had no problem consuming large amounts of Iraq’s national drink, Arak), turned and exclaimed with a taught face, I’d kill her if I had the chance.” For too many men in Iraq (and more than a few women), the kind of equality that millions of Iraqi women are striving for can easily cross a red line that around the world has always led men to use violence to enforce their power.

Here again we arrive at the threat, and too often, reality of violence as the defining dynamic of Iraqi politics. It is hard to describe the stifling sense of fear that pervades every day life in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and especially since the explosion of the insurgency in late 2003 and early 2004. For women, the violence has slammed the door of the public sphere shut, as the risks of taking to the streets and even traveling alone are too great to enable systematic political activism and campaigns. The closure of the public sphere has meant that the only people who could regularly take to the streets for much of the occupation were young, angry and armed religious men. Such a situation is not conducive to building a progressive political culture, and will not change – no matter the wording of the constitution – unless the insurgency and the U.S. presence winds down in the near future. 

The violence and the role of the U.S. presence in it raise another fundamental question barely touched upon by the discussions surrounding the constitution: What if the violence and chaos that have taken over Iraq (and which has become a similarly powerful dynamic in Palestine) are not merely the result of massive U.S. incompetence and ill-planning, but actually a structural necessity for the achievement of U.S. strategic aims in the country – that is, the retention of permanent military bases and the wholesale liberalization of the Iraqi economy?

The idea of sponsored” or managed” chaos as a defining characteristic of contemporary neoliberal globalization has already been demonstrated by scholars working on Africa, the former Soviet Union, and other locations along the arc of instability” that happens to contain some of the world’s most resource petroleum rich and politically unstable countries. The main thrust of this argument is that the coming Age of Peak Oil” makes it strategically necessary for the United States to maintain a long-term military presence in Iraq, and thus have unrestricted influence over its vast oil. In an environment where the vast majority of Iraqis do not want either of these things, creating a situation of violence and instability becomes a logical, and perhaps the only feasible way, to secure them.

Ironically, this dynamic interacts with the constitutional negotiations precisely by being largely absent from the discussions and debates over it. Lost in most of the public discussions around the constitution is whether it will prohibit or allow any foreign country (in this case, the United States) to have permanent bases, which is clearly opposed by the vast majority of Arab Iraqis. But as long as the violent insurgency continues, the Shi’i majority government cannot risk asking the United States to leave. Therefore, a serious but manageable insurgency becomes the most viable way to ensure that by the time the Iraqis work out their differences, the United States has half a dozen or more permanent bases constructed and has ensured that legal impediments to their presence are no longer an issue.

The other crucial issue that has largely been absent in most mainstream discussions of the constitutional negotiations has been the establishment of a legal structure under the Coalition Provisional Authority that made possible – in fact, mandated – the wholesale privatization of the country’s economy. In Naomi Klein’s now famous description in Harper’s:

In one place on Earth, [neoliberal] theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions.

The early policies of the CPA – firing hundreds of thousands of people, opening the countries borders completely to foreign trade tariff-free – not to mention at least a half a dozen orders” handed down by L. Paul Bremer (particularly Orders 39, 40, 49 and 18), made this process possible. In particular, the orders mandated the privatization of state-owned enterprises; allowed 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses except oil; offered foreign firms the same privileges as domestic companies; allowed unrestricted, tax-free transfers of profits out of the country; and placed the duration of ownership licenses at 40 years.

From my discussions with Iraqi academics, politicians and activists, it was clear that most understood that these orders would not be to the benefit of the Iraqi people, but few either felt they had the power to fight the United StatesS on this issue in the near future, or had the ability to devote much time to raising public awareness of them in order to build support for their repeal during the negotiations over the constitution. As Iraqi economist Sabri Zire al-Saadi explained in April 2004, Little attention has been given to the role of economic policy” – perhaps true for Iraqis, but certainly not for the American neocons most behind the invasion of Iraq. 

In fact, however, an initial draft of the constitution did return Iraq to something resembling a social welfare state that would have guaranteed maternal and child health benefits, child care, the role of the state in guaranteeing education, and most important, that natural resources belonged to the state. But it appears that these provisions were removed or severely watered down. While most news reports will skip over them, their final form could well determine the future of Iraq.

Most Iraqis in public life know this. But Iraqis couldn’t spend much time on issues such as economic policy or the question of permanent bases precisely because it’s an all-consuming task just to stay alive in the midst of a burgeoning insurgency, U.S. violence and mismanagement of the country’s infrastructure and democratic transition, and a potential civil war. Indeed, this dynamic also has affected the way the Arab and even Iraqi press has reported on these issues, as a review of the main international Arab and Iraq papers during the negotiations’ final period revealed little discussion of them.

And so today, as the constitutional negotiations (hopefully) come to a close, not even those most closely following these issues have any idea how, if at all, they will be addressed, and whether the language that is ultimately agreed upon will change the dynamic on the ground. The United States aggravates the situation through its continuing control of the vast bulk of reconstruction funds, which are then channeled to corporations with ties to the Bush Administration and their Iraqi clients. 

What is sure is that what U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad describes as the the new order” created during the tumultuous summer of 2005 will in many ways be the same as the old one. If so, Iraqis like their Palestinian counterparts will likely not be joining their leaders in celebrating the accomplishments of one single event.

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, UC Irvine, and the author of Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005)
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