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March 8, 2011

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The ‘New Iraq’: white man’s elephant

By Ali Tawfik-Shukor

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The conference theme was “le statut de Kirkouk et l'article 140 de la constitution Irakienne: problemes et perspectives”, taking place at the beautiful Palais du Luxembourg and French Senate in Paris. The fate of oil-rich Kirkuk is, and always has been, the most explosive issue in the “New Iraq”, exposing historic fault lines between the Kurds and Baghdad's central government. At the heart of the May 14, 2010, conference was Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution, a technocratic fix to more than 80 years of the continuous ethnic cleansing of Kurdistan, culminating in the Baathist Arabisation campaigns between 1968 and 2003.

The processes of such conferences are never simple – you see honesty, deceit, humour, anger and sadness – human nature expressed in its most primal, yet modern form: politics. What is simple, however, is its outcome: for the whole exercise was much ado about nothing. 

They wasted the better part of a day debating the implementation of an Iraqi constitutional article – an article and constitution not worth the ink and paper they are written on, if one does not understand the twisted world of machinations in which they were created. These constitutional articles are indeed no better than the people who originally imagined them. The people who wrote them, and the people who voted for them were indeed Iraqis – but it is the people who imagined these articles and constitutions who really matter. 

For today, in our ignorance and blindness, we deal so much with the effects rather than causes of things. 

The people who imagined them have their roots steeped in history – for indeed modern “Iraq” is their creation. But there is nothing Iraqi about them. They are the lifeblood of global financiers: the Calouste Gulbenkians, the concessionary colonial parasitic oil “companies” – the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (British Petroleum), Royal Dutch Shell, La Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (Total), the Near East Development Corporation (Exxon) – who comically called themselves the Turkish (later the “Iraqi”) Petroleum Company in 1927. With their imaginations and machinations, they wrote – and continue to write – the history, misery and tragedy of Iraq and its peoples. Their names are different now, but their essence is the same.

So today we have our “Article 140” – a technical solution to solve the legacy of the forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, rape, genocide and collective humiliation of a human identity. A technocratic, fiscally incentivised, neoliberal solution to the loss of family, history, language, culture, social relationships, land, nature and love. The “Article 140 Implementation Committee” even has a website. The sheer lunacy is in essence tragic, for we are dealing with human loss on an unfathomable scale.

Yet, the charade goes on. Indeed, it is easy to understand why. For in the world of politicians and bureaucrats, nothing succeeds like failure. The more they fail at implementing “constitutional articles”, or even delivering basic services – water, electricity, healthcare, sanitation, schooling and food rations – the more their budgets and power increase. In the modern world of the “New Iraq”, accountability and governance are meaningless constructs – the comedic mantras and common sayings of our age. Keeping your mouth – and more importantly, your conscience – shut, are highly sought after professional competences. 

Yet the situation is nothing short of calamitous. What little is left of that land – its natural ecology, histories and peoples – are heading for complete destruction. I am not a nihilist – I am simply pointing out what is blindingly obvious. Today, there is a massive and widening economic, social and epidemiological polarisation – not between ethnicities and religions, as often portrayed by the media, but between the political moneyed elite and the rest of the population. As the rural and urban poor suffer from malnutrition and cholera, the political upper classes deal with issues of obesity and diabetes. As the people of Basra drink sewage and salt water, as the children of Najaf survive off rubbish dumps, and as the families of Balisan continue suffering the physical and psychological effects of Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld’s chemical weapons, the affluent and powerful drink Evian, and engage us demotically – for they confuse demotic with democratic – at the French Senate's Palais du Luxembourg.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité indeed.

Today, winning a Green Zone parliamentary seat is tantamount to winning the lottery, securing the social and financial security of family and friends for generations to come. Yet it is not, and will never be their money. This is the money of the orphaned children of honest families too proud to be reduced to indignity and beggary. This is embezzlement on a mass scale. Fiduciary responsibility is not in the vocabulary of the “New Iraq”. 

Today, our brave politicians mobilise all courage to ensure the “implementation of Article 140”. Yet they are still blind to the fact that this article – this constitution – are dead. They were dead the moment they were imagined and created in the halls of power of Iraq’s creators. But when reality sets in, our political elite might find that the “New Iraq” is too expensive to give up – a white elephant – its opportunity cost is returning to some semblance of social-democratic accountability and justice to a long-impoverished and oppressed population. 

Will they have the altruism and depth of soul to give up their white elephant? Here we can learn from history, for why should the future be different from an invariably sustainable past? And history teaches us that there is virtually nothing new about this “New Iraq”. “New” Iraqs were presented by the British, their Hashemite client rulers, the leftist Abd-al Karim Qasim, the pan-Arabist Abd-al Salam Arif, and the CIA-backed Baathists personified by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. They were perhaps only “new” in the ways they subjugated the Kurds, although history again shows us this wasn’t necessarily the case. After all, it was the benevolent Winston Churchill who used chemical weapons on both Kurds and Arabs, over a half century before Saddam Hussein repeated the lesson. 

History does indeed repeat itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. What’s perhaps more tragic is our inability to learn from it.

The client rulers of today’s version of the “New Iraq” owe a myriad of oft-conflicting allegiances to a bewildering number of special interests, operating within a fantastically complicated sphere of global governance. But the rules of the game within which they operate are the same as those petrified when the oil gusher of Baba Gurgur outside Kirkuk was discovered in 1927. Oil remains today, as was then, the lifeblood of global financiers hegemonising the global economic, social and political order. 

So the truth presents itself as self-evident. Our story has nothing to do with altruism or depth of soul. The white man’s elephant, a colonial gift to the people of Mesopotamia, in its ingenious design, is and always has been too expensive to give up. It endures the tests of time and human struggle. But what also becomes clear, is that the situation is untenable. There is only so much poverty, inequality, humiliation, hunger, thirst, disease and anger people can withstand. Luckily, when that day comes, flats, passports and trust funds in London, Paris and Washington will be ready for the benevolent protagonists of the “New Iraq”. 

Today, my grandfather’s house in Kirkuk lays in ruin. What remains of that house, and of the ancient city it inhabits, are only the physical shells and remains of human lives, histories, dreams and loves lost. My father’s memories – of the sounds of his father’s radio, of waking up to the smell of his mother’s freshly baked naan, of visits to Prophet Daniel’s tomb, of the sight of Kurdish women visiting the Eternal Fire of Baba Gurgur praying to have a baby boy, and of playing under the bridge of Kirkuk’s 5000 year old Citadel – are what remain and persist in his, and my, heart and mind. 

Ali Tawfik-Shukor is a PhD student at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

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