Johann Hari: Yes, ask the Iraqis if they want this constitution - but don't stop there

They remain trapped between two gun-toting forces, unable to assert their will
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The Independent Online

Nobody who follows the situation in Iraq can have failed, by now, to have the darkest nightmare of all: of intractable civil war, with Baathists and Islamists determined to humiliate the Shia majority and the Americans by creating an abattoir on every street corner that achieves peace. And the disaster spirals: this would leave Iraq with an Anglo-American occupying force - equipped with its own centres of torture and mass imprisonment - unable to glue the country back together again, but also unable to withdraw and admit political humiliation for Bush and Blair. Cue Macbeth: "I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

But this vision is not inevitable. Another Iraq is possible, and, buried beneath the carnage and rubble, the Iraqi people fervently, desperately want to make it happen. The constitution published this weekend was drafted by Iraq's elected politicians. You remember them: the people whom eight million Iraqis risked their lives and dodged suicide-murderers to vote for back in the spring. After months of deliberation and negotiation, it turns out their proposed Iraq is "republican, democratic and pluralistic", with guaranteed regular elections, a free press, 25 per cent of parliament designated for women (far more than in the US Congress), and Kurdish - once an underground language punishable by torture - now one of Iraq's official languages.

Of course a constitution is only a piece of paper. Joseph Stalin wrote a constitution for the Soviet Union in 1936 that sounds mouth-wateringly free: total free speech, the right to demonstrate, even the right to not have to work overtime. No doubt these constitutional rights were a great comfort to the 10 million people worked to death in the gulags. So the Iraqi constitution, in itself, is a guarantee of nothing: only social movements, constantly pressuring a government over decades, can ensure that rights-on-paper become rights-in-real-life. But the constitution is significant none the less because it shows us what that other Iraq would look like, if only the clear majority of Iraqis could raise their voices above the gunfire and screaming.

Yet they remain trapped between two gun-toting forces, unable to assert their will. To one side there is the Anglo-American occupying army, whose leaders are primarily concerned with control of the oil supply in the Middle East and the establishment of long-term military bases. They have been flogging off Iraq's assets as if on eBay, imposing a form of neo-liberalism that has caused unemployment to hit 70 per cent. Worse still, they have been using Abu Ghraib-style torture on a wide scale and, according to Newsweek, are considering the "Salvador option" for Iraq - the deliberate targeting of Sunni civilians in order to terrorise them out of supporting the terrorists. (Yes, you spotted the flaw in their logic.)

To the other side is the "resistance". The Baathist wing seeks to regain power for the Sunni minority, and is butchering its way across Baghdad just as they did before 2003. The Islamist wing - calling itself al-Qa'ida in Iraq - wants to establish a Taliban state where, in their own words, "we will fight a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to practice it".

Contrary to the conservative assumption that backward, tribal Arabs like tyranny, the great mass of Iraqis reject these visions as well. In every opinion poll and at their chance to vote, they showed they want all the boring, beautiful things of a stable life: democracy, federalism, power-sharing. And not the cosmetic-democracy of George Bush's propaganda either, but a real and deep democracy.

So how can those of us motivated by solidarity support the Iraqi majority against all comers? There are hundreds of independent groups we can support inside Iraq who are trying - in the most terrifying circumstances - to fight for a genuinely free Iraq. The Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq is campaigning against Islamist attempts to subject women to sharia law. (They have successfully kept it out of the constitution, although there are still worrying references to Islam as a "primary source of law" alongside promises to protect human rights). Oil workers across Iraq are fighting and striking to prevent the profits from Iraq's oil leaking out of the country and into the bank accounts of foreign corporations.

But what should we be trying to force our government to do? In the long term, we must work to change how our own societies work and build a world where the choices are far better than Bush vs Baathism. That would require us to build a very different foreign policy, independent of corporate interests and a thirst for oil. But Iraqis cannot afford to wait until then. What's the right cry right now for people who want to support Iraqis: troops out or troops remain?

The only principled answer is to take our lead from the Iraqi people. It is their country, and only they know what is best for it. Only Iraqis on the ground can tell which is the greater risk for them: a possible Islamist-Baathist takeover, or leaving the Anglo-American troops (with their torture and forced neo-liberalism) in place to fend them off.

There is a simple policy you can advocate that would place this decision directly into the hands of Iraqis. When the people of Iraq vote on the constitution on 15 October, they should also be asked a referendum question: do you want the coalition forces to remain for another year, or leave immediately?

Of course, the Bush administration would not want to hold such a referendum. They want to stay, build their bases, drill the oil and manipulate the elected Iraqi government for some time to come. But the Bushies did not want to hold an election last spring either. Their original plan was to appoint a pliant "constitutional convention" and only face the voters much later in 2006. Pressure within and outside Iraq forced them to change their minds; it could do so again.

Many people - settled into comfortable assumptions about what is happening in Iraq - would find the prospect of giving the Iraqis a say discomforting. To the "Troops Out Now" campaigners, it asks: would you really advocate a withdrawal against the wishes of most Iraqis? And to the stay-the-course-no-matter-what bombardiers, it asks: would you want to stay if you knew the Iraqis had voted to toss you out? What's your slogan - we'll liberate them whether they damn well like it or not? It's a simple chant, and the only moral one left: All Power to the Iraqis.