The Phantom Sovereign

The Iraqi struggle for independence from American rule has begun in earnest. US forces there now face a double insurrection-one part Sunni Muslim, the other Shiite Muslim-that threatens at the same time to turn into a civil war. Only the Kurdish north is quiet. With these events, US policy for Iraq has taken leave of reality as thoroughly as America's claims regarding weapons of mass destruction did before the war. The policy was declared on November 21, when Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced that on June 30 of this year the "occupation of Iraq will end," and Iraq will then enjoy "sovereignty." Since then, news commentators and officials have habitually told the public that on that date the United States "will hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people" (in the words of Dan Senor, a senior adviser to the CPA), who will then enjoy what is commonly called an "interim constitution." Every word of these short phrases is based on assumptions radically at odds with the facts.

1. "Sovereignty." According to Webster's, sovereignty is "supreme power, especially over a body politic." But it is no longer possible, if it ever was, to argue that the United States and its allies wield "supreme power" in Iraq. True, US forces can go where they like, but do they rule? Do the Iraqi people obey them? When the American authorities order something to happen, does it? On the contrary, none of the US plans for running the country announced by the Bush Administration has so far even been enacted, much less succeeded. Even now, GOP Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that he has "no idea" what the plans for the June 30 transition are.

Iraqi political figures, by contrast, have been making a lot happen. According to the always invaluable (and now winner of a Pulitzer prize) Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, the most popular of the Shiite leaders, the comparatively moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, launched a petition against the US-sponsored "constitution." The petition quickly gathered tens of thousands of signatures. This peaceful opposition to American rule, however, was quickly superseded, at least for the time being, by the Shiite insurrection, led by the extreme Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Iraqi blogger Zayed, until now pro-occupation, offers the following portrait of life in Baghdad the day after the insurrection:

"No one knows what is happening in the capital right now. Power has been cut off in my neighbourhood since the afternoon, and I can only hear helicopters, massive explosions, and continuous shooting nearby. The streets are empty, someone told us half an hour ago that Mahdi [Sadr's militia] are trying to take over our neighbourhood and are being met by resistance from Sunni hardliners. Doors are locked, and AK-47's are being loaded and put close by in case they are needed. The phone keeps ringing frantically."

There is no "sovereign," American or other, in this Iraq; there is anarchy. The less "sovereignty" the United States possesses, it appears, the more quickly it wants to surrender it.

2. "Hand over." How can the United States "hand over" power that it has never possessed? In any case, sovereignty is not a physical object, like a desk, that can be moved from one office to another. It is a relationship among people-one of command and obedience. Even if the United States did have sovereignty in Iraq, as it obviously does not, it would not be able to pass it on to someone else. Either the United States would remain the real sovereign behind the scenes or the new group would have to build up sovereign power for itself. Admittedly, the United States does possess something in Iraq -- unopposable military force. But this is one thing, needless to say, that the United States decidedly will not hand over on June 30 or any other day. (Other things it is not planning to hand over are control of the central bank and the news media.) Will the Governing Council, which many Iraqis call "the Governed Council," command American troops or, for that matter, even their own Iraqi troops? Not likely. Meanwhile, the misnamed "administrator" of the misnamed "coalition" will be replaced by a misnamed "ambassador," presiding over what is to be the largest US "embassy" in the world.

3. "The Iraqi people." The Iraqi people will have no involvement, whether as givers or takers of power, on June 30. Those to whom the United States plans to hand over something or other (it will certainly not be power) are a small group of Iraqi officials, most of whom are to be US appointees. No one knows yet exactly who they will be or how they are to be chosen, Bremer's previous plan of selecting them by means of managed "caucuses" having been scuttled in the face of opposition from Ayatollah Sistani.

4. "Interim Constitution." A series of temporary regulations promulgated, before any election has been held, in the name of a conquering power and its local appointees is wholly misdescribed as a constitution. A constitution is the fundamental, enduring law of a country. In a democracy, it proceeds from the will of the people. Nothing of this kind will be instituted in Iraq on June 30.

5. "June 30, 2004." Among political observers, it is widely and believably said that this date is geared not to any events in Iraq but to the 2004 US presidential election. The Bush Administration wants to bolster the President's campaign by creating an impression of progress in Iraq, and is staffing the CPA's office of strategic communications with GOP operatives including Rich Galen, former press spokesman for Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle.

Keeping all these things in mind, we should revise the commonly used phrases. Instead of saying, "On June 30, the Coalition will hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people," we should say, "On June 30, the re-election campaign of George W. Bush will hand over the appearance of responsibility for the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq to certain of its local appointees."

And the Iraqi people? They are busy, violently and otherwise, struggling for their own future. One of the organizers of the Sistani petition, Saad Taher, commented to Shadid, "America has a term: the rebuilding of Iraq. We are rebuilding ourselves. We want to create a new Iraqi personality. That's our task. That's not the Americans' task." For better or worse, these words are already on their way to becoming true.

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