BAGHDAD — Just the other week, terrorists dragged five Shiite teachers from a school bus, took them into their school, lined them up against a classroom wall, and shot them and their driver to death. During this murderous outburst, school children were at play just outside the classroom.
Just the other day, as if to demonstrate the throttlehold they have over the Sunni Triangle, a well-coordinated string of three car-bombs were detonated by Sunnis in Balad just north of here. This piece of savagery killed 112 more innocents. And, before the day was over, another car bomb in a vegetable market killed 12 more, mostly women and children.
A few moments ago, meanwhile, an AP bulletin reported that a second group of 500 prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison were released to honor the start of Ramadan. This makes 1,000 prisoners released in two days! The bulletin also reported that Sunni leaders called for this gesture and American officials obliged. Each prisoner set free to kill more Iraqis and Americans was given “a new white jelabe, a copy of the Koran and $25 in cash.” No one asked how many women and children these men have killed or will go on to kill.
The recent massacres, part of the Sunni plan to derail the October 15 referendum on the new Iraq constitution, are following the scenario laid out for me by a group of senior military officers about two months ago. I reported about this some ten days ago. The picture the officers painted of events in Iraq, was one of continually increasing violence through the October and December elections and into next spring. They predicted that the killing orgy would come to an end in one cataclysmic “Big Bang” of violence. Out of the ashes of this series of convulsions will rise Phoenix-like, the process of the real democratization of Iraq. I hope they are right!
I continue to feel that the trump card in all the violence and killing of the coming months will be the Iraqi Army. Fighting by rules the Geneva Convention writers never contemplated, and recalling at times a Saddam era level of brutality, the Iraqi Army will impose itself on the Sunnis, whose wistful nostalgia for the good old days of Saddam will finally run out of steam.
HOW WILL ALL THE VIOLENCE affect the approval of the Constitution in the referendum on October 15? The answer, I believe, is that the Sunnis’ reckless display of violence will backfire on them the same way it did in the January elections. In recent weeks the violence has reached truly major league levels of savagery and professionalism. And yet the Shiites, who are the victims of it, have maintained incredible self-discipline. They have avoided the kind of retribution of which they are capable but which, if carried out, would plunge the country into civil war. Much of the credit for the self-discipline must be given to the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani the most beloved cleric in Iraq, even among many non-Shiites. Sistani has urged his followers to “turn the other cheek” and not strike back. So far, no amount of goading by the Sunnis has diverted the Shiites from the game plan.
On September 22, the Ayatollah made a statement strongly urging his followers to vote for the Constitution. This was a very big development, although not totally unexpected. The Ayatollah has from the very beginning supported the plans approved by the Assembly and the Coalition. The Sunnis must be literally chewing the rug over the way Sistani has masterminded and successfully controlled how Shiites have behaved in response to the violence of the past year.
And not to be outdone by any U.S.-style political campaigning, the Ayatollah has a very elegant-looking website at www.sistani.org. Pretty simple address. Not pretentious. Not pompous. I wrote him an email to ask a question this afternoon and I have already had word that my question has been turned over to someone for an answer. The more I see of this wily old operator, the more I think the Constitution will win.
To those who ask how it will go, I predict the Constitution will win. At least one province (Anbar) will cobble together the necessary two-thirds majority to defeat it. There is a long shot chance two provinces will vote it down. But opponents will not muster the necessary third province (out of 18) that would kill the Constitution and send everything back to square one. That would indeed be a recipe for civil war. No country could go through this entire process one more time.
To those who ask if the Iraqis care if the Constitution is approved, my answer is a resounding YES. There are as many reasons for wanting a constitution as there are Iraqis. And, very often they have no idea why they want it to pass except that “it just sounds like a pretty good idea” or “any self-respecting country has a constitution.” During the past weeks I have asked at least 200 strangers what they think and hope will happen. About 80% say they hope it will pass. Baghdad is a mixed bag of Shiites and Sunnis. One would not expect that high a percentage favoring passage if one assumes all the Sunnis in Baghdad should be genetically programmed to oppose it.
The most interesting, and in some ways most telling responses, came in reply to two questions I asked everyone: “What is a constitution?” and “What should a constitution say?”
About 90% of the people had no idea what a constitution is but they sure want one! In response to the second question, their reactions consisted of some kind of shrug of the shoulders — always done with a sheepish smile, however. None of this should be surprising in a country just wrapping up a 30-year period of dictatorship and whose tradition of freedom and democracy to date has lasted all of 30 minutes.
And lest you become distressed by the fact that 90% of the people can’t write a 200 word essay on what a constitution is, and an equal number don’t know what one should say, it is infinitely more distressing to realize that if you were to walk up Fifth Avenue and take the same poll, the percentage of the ignorant might only drop from 90% to 81%!
The key to this referendum will lie with the voter turnout among the Sunnis. In the election in January, they stayed away in droves to show their contempt and disdain for the process. They have been kicking themselves ever since for having engaged in this childish bit of political stupidity that backfired so badly on them. The Sunnis have been working round the clock to pump up the turnout in the three central provinces of Iraq. Unless they receive a big majority there, they have no chance to defeat the Constitution. I personally don’t feel they will get the breakthrough they need.
There is another aspect to this situation I never hear mentioned. That is that even among the Sunnis, there should be a growing consensus of people who are telling themselves that there must be a better way for them and for their families to live than in a world filled with car bombs, suicide bombers, and uncontrolled violence and carnage. I don’t think this is a purely Shiite against Sunni war. I am sure it is, to a much greater degree than suspected, an Al-Zarqawi/Al-Qaeda war against the Shiites. And, to an extent much greater than reported, it is a war in which foreign infiltrators from Syria and Iran make up a very large percentage of the fighters. Since the infiltrators can’t vote, it will be interesting to see if the results reflect a situation in which the local Sunnis who vote are as fed up with the violence as the Kurds and the Shiites.
HOW DO I SEE THIS ALL playing out in the next few months?
First, to reiterate, I think the Constitution will be a big winner. That will change the political realities in Washington and enable the President to be far more aggressive in Iraq. Troops will be added. It matters not what excuse is given for this very necessary step.
In my opinion, the troop shortage has been the greatest misstep of the war. Even though I am, on the whole, a strong supporter of Donald Rumsfeld, I think his refusal to admit he has been dead wrong on this point is a scandal and the President should simply overrule him. We have tried it Rumsfeld’s way long enough and we are not succeeding at the rate that we should.
The December elections will bring back the U.S.’s favorite Iraqi politician, Ayad Alawi. And, then the New Iraqi Army will be unleashed in January or February. The NIA will, perhaps brutally, put down the internal Sunni killers while the U.S. Army, U.S. Marines, and U.S. Special Forces will take care of the cross-border infiltrators.
After these successes, the U.S. will be marvelously positioned to do the two things that are at the heart of the longer range strategy: Establish permanent bases in Northern Iraq from which the entire Middle East can be kept under tight surveillance, and start the gradual drawdown of troops that is needed if only to give them a rest.
Just as I wrote those last lines and was about to send this dispatch off to Wlady, I heard multiple jets roaring overhead for the sixth or seventh time today. Why should that be unusual? Because in the six months I have been here I have, until today, heard only four single fighter jets fly over. Thousands of helicopters, but only four jets, Something is changing.
John Connly Walsh, a frequent contributor, works for an American company in Baghdad.
Copyright 2005 John Connly Walsh