Johann Hari: Iraqis will get their vote on the constitution, but this is not the one they really wanted

Bush said he was bringing 'US-style capitalism ', but this was more extreme than anything in Texas
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The Independent Online

An Iraqi friend of mine who drove voters to the polls in the last election in January remembers an incredible scene: "There was a long snaking queue at the polling station in the south of Baghdad that I was assigned to. I left to pick up one family and, by the time I got back, a man had blown himself up when he got near the front of the queue. But it was amazing to see that, after the initial commotion, everybody was queuing up again. They just rejoined the line, and, as they walked past what was left of the body of this guy, they spat on him and went in to cast their votes."

This week, there will be another act of national heroism on the part of the Iraqi people. So it is particularly cruel that the constitution they are being presented with this weekend - the constitution they will risk everything for - is based on a lie.

The theory is simple: in January, Iraqis elected an assembly to draw up the constitution. This week, they get to approve or reject it. At the end, we will have an Iraqi constitution written, signed and sealed by the Iraqi people and their democratic representatives.

I was in Saddam's terrified, terrorised Iraq when he held his last "referendum" - the one where he magically received 100 per cent of the vote - so there is nothing I would like more than for this to all be true. But Herbert Docena, an Iraq-based journalist writing for the Asia Times, has exposed it as a propaganda myth. The truth is that the constitution written by Iraq's democratic representatives has been boiled, stirred and reduced by representatives of the Bush administration to make it match not the will of the Iraqi people but the whims of American investors. The Iraqi people are being asked to vote on a drained, stained simulacra of the constitution written by their elected representatives.

The first draft of Iraq's constitution - worked out by Shia, Sunni and Kurd negotiators - was leaked in June to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, and it was very different to George Bush's vision of Iraq. No, it did not propose an Islamic fundamentalist state, even though some glib, semi-racist observers assume a bunch of rag-heads would come up with nothing less. It proposed something even more threatening to US interests in the developing world: a social democracy where Iraqis have full rights to health care, free education, and - wait for it - full ownership of their own natural resources.

It declared "social justice is the basis of building Iraqi society". This was spelled out as meaning a mixed economy where the state would take the lead in promoting development, supplying public services and "providing work opportunities for every able-bodied citizen". And - most radically - there was a guarantee that "all natural resources [read: oil] are owned by the people. The state shall preserve and invest in them well".

The Bush administration panicked. Across the world, the US imposes a very different economic model through its proxies, the IMF and the World Bank. They demand poor countries adopt a small-state, low-tax model based on slashing public provision for health and education and handing profit-soaked resources like oil to multinational corporations. (Purely by coincidence, these same corporations fund the Republican Party and its campaigns).

Since the fall of Saddam, the Bush administration has been trying to swing Iraq from one extreme - a Stalinist dictatorship where everything was the property of one crazed crime family - to this alternative model. As the New York Times columnist Jeff Madrick noted: "By any mainstream economist's standard, the plan... is extreme. In fact, it's stunning." The Bush administration claimed it was bringing "US-style capitalism", but this was far more extreme than anything tried in Texas. They stripped out Iraq's public sector entirely, and sent unemployment soaring to 70 per cent. The Economist noted dryly they had followed "the wish-list of international investors", and sold off anything that wasn't nailed to the ground.

So it wouldn't do for puny Iraqi democrats to try to reverse these achievements in the constitution itself, armed with nothing but the will of the Iraqi people. After a series of long sessions with Zalmay Khalilzad, a former Unocal employee and now US ambassador to Iraq, this social democratic Iraqi constitution disappeared. Social justice evaporated: it was replaced with a commitment to "reforming the Iraqi economy" to ensure "complete investment of its resources" in a "modern" way.

The commitment to collective ownership of Iraq's oil disappeared: instead, it was to be subject to "modern techniques of market principles" - handed over to Bush's corporate friends for private profit. The commitment to public health care and education was suddenly subject to a series of clauses: they must involve the private sector, and provision will be "within the limits of the government's resources". The supremacy of US interests over the Iraqi will was reasserted.

And this caused a ripple-effect. After a close study of the different drafts, Docena concluded that the disturbing religious provisions in the constitution - like the use of Islamic law - only crept in as the social democratic provisions were stripped out.

"In the quid pro quo, investors' rights trumped women's rights," he explains. Suddenly, passages subjecting Iraqi women (who make up 60 per cent of the population) to male supremacy and Mullah-filled courts began to creep in. In other words, the Bush administration sold out Iraqi women so they could sell off Iraqi assets.

The Bush administration is trying to integrate its economic occupation of Iraq - in many ways worse than the military occupation - into the constitution. This will make the development of normal, class-based politics in Iraq impossible. Since Iraqi politicians don't control the economy and are powerless to affect the second-biggest issue in the country after security - unemployment - the country has divided even more along sectarian, tribal lines.

Another Iraq is possible. Not a return to Saddam's psychosis, nor a capitulation to the jihadists who blow up polling booths and the UN headquarters - but not Bush's neoliberal oil-colony either. It is the Iraq outlined in the first, real constitution, chosen by Iraqis themselves: a social democratic Iraq where unemployment (and the recruiting pool for jihadi death-cults) is slowly eroded, where health and education services are built up by the government, and where every cent of profit from Iraq's oil flows into the Iraqi exchequer.

After all they have endured and all the courage they have shown, Iraqis deserve to be allowed to choose that Iraq this Saturday. But while we are addicted to their oil and while corporations own America's political parties, the prospect of real Iraqi democracy is depressingly distant.