Iraq constitution sealed at last, and immediately come the warnings of an upsurge in violence

Robert Fisk in Baghdad

09 March 2004

They used King Faisal's old table to sign the document, the desk upon which Winston Churchill's choice as monarch once tried, not very successfully, to rule Iraq. It was, of course, supposed to be a special day in Iraqi history. Twenty-five local leaders - most television reports spared viewers that uncomfortable and all-important qualification "American-appointed' - dutifully signed their new and temporary constitution.

Veiled ladies and tribal sheikhs, some good men and true but also a convicted fraudster, Ahmed Chalabi, scribbled their signatures in front of the US proconsul, Paul Bremer.

You could almost hear him sighing in relief. For the constitution - it is only temporary and contains plenty of unanswered questions - is supposed to be America's get-out clause. As long as the 25 men and women signed their names, Washington could hand over "sovereignty" to them on 30 June, well before the US presidential elections in November. That, at least, is the plan. Yesterday, we were spared the string quartet and the children's choir of last week's aborted ceremony, but not the violence.

For many Baghdadis, the day began as it did for me, instinctively ducking as a tremendous explosion clappered over the city. I was trying to make a phone call on my new and inefficient mobile phone when the first rocket exploded on the police station near Andalos Square. I heard the firing of the weapon, a dull thump, and then the swish of the missile overhead. By the time I reached the police headquarters, the road was packed with angry young men and screaming ambulances. There was another thump and another powerful impact as a second rocket hit a civilian home in a cloud of grey smoke.

At the Ibn el-Nafis Hospital, the little boy wounded in the house was writhing on his bed in agony, next to Sergeant Abbas Jalil Hussein, of the Iraqi police force. "I was just washing my hands to say my morning prayers," he said. "I heard this tremendous noise, and then I felt my blood on my leg and realised I was wounded."

At this point, a member of the hospital's management, under the standing instructions of the American-appointed health minister, interrupted to say I had no business to be in the ward. This wasn't the day to be reporting on suffering Iraqis, certainly not a day on which dangerous folk such as journalists should be counting the statistics of violence.

So I set off to the home of an Iraqi businessman, a middle-aged Christian, to watch America's dreams come true, praying he would have electricity to power his television set. His generator thumped out just enough juice to run the television. The screen dipped and waved and shimmered, but there they were, one by one, stepping up to King Faisal's chair, applauded and beaming, unelected men and women of the "Governing Council" signing a temporary constitution which, in theory at least, guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. Most Iraqis are more interested in electricity than constitutions, which may be one reason why the details of this particular document have not exactly been discussed in the street. They should have been.

We still don't know, for example, whether the Kurds will have a veto on any new government decisions. The original document stipulated that two-thirds of voters in any three provinces could have a veto. The Kurds control three provinces in the north, two of which, the dominant Shia population say, contain only 500,000 people. This was one of the reasons why old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani objected to last week's signing. Will the Shia community's 60 per cent of the entire Iraqi population be represented by a new government? Will they get three members of their faith into a five-man rotating presidency or one in a three-man presidency which yesterday's signing seemed to represent?

Iraqis have been puzzled by the clause allowing Iraqis two passports and the right of restitution of property if they had been exiled. Did this refer to opponents of Saddam or the tens of thousands of Jewish Iraqis driven from Baghdad more than four decades ago?

Were Israelis born in Baghdad to be given Iraqi passports and return? Why shouldn't they, I asked my Christian friend? Fair enough, he said. But would the Americans then support the return of Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948?

In the end, the signing ceremony was pomp without much circumstance. Mr Bremer, the man who was supposed to be an expert in "counter-terrorism" and is reported as saying he will retire to "private life" on 30 June, sent a letter of congratulations to the 25 men and women. Then came the usual off-the-record briefings. We could expect more violence now the document had been signed. There would be an increase in attacks up to 30 June. It was the same old story: the better things are, the worse they get.

Excerpt from interim constitution

• The system of government in Iraq will be republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic. Federalism will be based on geography, history, and the separation of powers and not on ethnicity or sect.

• The Iraqi Armed Forces will fall under the control of Iraq's civilian political leadership.

• Islam will be the official religion and will be considered a source of legislation.The law will respect the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantee freedom of religious belief and practice.

• Arabic and Kurdish will be the official languages.

• Equal rights: the people of Iraq are sovereign and free. All Iraqis are equal in their rights and without regard to gender, nationality, religion, or ethnic origin and they are equal before the law.

• Those unjustly deprived of their citizenship by previous Iraqi regimes will have the right to reclaim it.

• The government will respect the rights of the people, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and expression; to assemble peaceably and to associate and organise freely; to justice; to a fair, speedy, and open trial and to the presumption of innocence; to vote in free, fair, competitive and periodic elections; to file grievances against officials when these rights have been violated.