Patrick Cockburn: Another six months, another breakthrough? Treat it sceptically

The Independent

Published: 23 August 2005

Every six months Iraq supposedly faces a challenge which, if overcome, will open the way to peace. The latest is the drive to agree a new draft constitution by last night so it can be submitted to parliament and voted on in a referendum on 15 October.

This January it was the successful holding of the election that was portrayed as the first gleam of light at the end of the tunnel. A year ago, in June 2004, the supposed handover of power from a US-controlled administration to an interim Iraqi government was portrayed by the White House and Downing Street as a body blow to the resistance.

Once again, a single development - whose long-term significance is unclear - is being oversold as a breakthrough on the road to establishing a new Iraq.

The main reason for producing a draft constitution on time is that it is desperately needed in the US. President George W Bush wants to tell a sceptical US public that progress is being made in Baghdad, that the ever-lengthening butcher's bill is producing real benefits.

The reality on the ground in Iraq makes it difficult to see how the constitution can be implemented, supposing that it is passed both by parliament and in a referendum.

The most divisive issue is federalism. This revolves around the future of the Kurds and Kurdistan. It was essentially the Kurdish revolt which destabilised Iraq for half a century. Since 1991, the Kurds have effectively controlled the three most northern Iraqi provinces where they are a majority. Since the war of 2003 they have also held the oil city of Kirkuk and much of Mosul province. The only truly effective part of the Iraqi army is Kurdish.

The Kurds are not intending to give up these gains, whatever any new constitution may say. Their leaders do not want to do so and their followers would not let them do so even if they did.

The Sunni negotiators have also been holding out against federalism but it is not clear who they represent. They have not been elected by the five million Sunni who are the base of the insurgents. Whatever happens over the constitution, the fighting will go on. The Sunni Arab representatives are marked men. Some have already paid with their lives for taking part in the talks on the new constitution.

Whatever the new constitution says, Iraq will in future be more Islamic.

Already women in Baghdad increasingly wear the veil - not necessarily because they are more religious, but because they believe it makes it less likely that they will be kidnapped. "If you wear a veil it gives the impression that you belong to a tribe which will take vengeance if anything happens to you," argued one highly educated woman.

But the real danger of the new constitution is that it has been rushed through the drafting committee to meet American, not Iraqi, political needs. It is there to show that a political process is underway.

In order to be effective, however, a constitution supposes a state of some sort. The negotiations of the past few months should be producing a set of rules by which Iraqis will in future live in peace. But Iraq hardly constitutes a state.

Much of the country is in the hands of local Kurdish and Shiite militias who will impose their will whatever a constitution supposedly says. Nor can it really regulate life in Sunni Arab Iraq, much of which is controlled by the insurgents.