Iraq’s Hollow Sovereignty

Anyone interested in Iraq’s new constitution would be advised to check out the film Return to the Land of Wonders, which focuses on the crafting of Iraq’s interim constitution in the Spring of 2004. The documentary was shot by Maysoon Pachachi, the daughter of 82 year old secular businessman Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister of Iraq who had spent more than 30 years in exile before the U.S. military ousted Saddam’s regime.

Over the opening credits, filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi explains how her father returned to Iraq thinking "his experience as a diplomat and one-time foreign minister might be useful."

He "had been against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but they had happened," she says. "This was now the reality he had to deal with. He agreed to be a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council."

Once in Baghdad, the Pachachis set up shop in a large house guarded by members of their tribe. As a member of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi heads up the drafting committee for the interim constitution. But he’s hamstrung by the American authorities, who have final say on what goes into the document.

"There were often heated exchanges between U.S. representatives and members of the [Iraqi] drafting committee," the filmmaker observers. "The committee would try to get the best deal for Iraqis in a situation where they had no real power."

Pachachi’s main concern is that Iraq’s constitution contain a comprehensive bill of rights, but this is not popular with his American overlords. The U.S. government demands that American soldiers in Iraq be exempt from Iraqi law and its bill of rights.

"We can’t agree that a foreign power will not be bound by our laws rights here in Baghdad," argues Pachachi’s lawyer, Faisal Istrabadi, in one marathon session, concerned that the U.S. military will carry out warrantless searches with indefinite arrests without charge and no right to a speedy trial – all under the nose of Iraqi authorities whose constitution specifically forbids such acts.

Istrabadi becomes exasperated. "Who are we trying to fool?" he rants. "Why say we are a sovereign government?! Just say we’re an occupation country. Let them rule us from Washington."

Outside the Pachachi compound, arrests are taking place that underscore Istrabadi’s concerns. Maysoon Pachachi braves a sandstorm to visit a veterinary doctor named Abu Ahmed. Under Saddam’s regime, the filmmaker says, he was arrested and tortured. This had been repeated under American occupation.

On May 15, 2003, the veterinarian says, he and his son were traveling through Baghdad when they saw 20 or 30 American soldiers holding two men face down on the ground handcuffed. They stopped to talk to the soldiers. When the Americans found a pistol in his car, they detained him, promising to release him the next day. Instead he was taken, without being charged, to Abu Ghraib.

The situation at Abu Ghraib was so bad that Abu Ahmed went on a hunger strike. "There was a bigger issue at stake," he says, "our freedom."

When the detention dragged on, Abu Ahmed says, the prisoners began chanting "We want our freedom, we want our human rights." In response to the chanting, he says, U.S. soldiers fired live ammunition from five directions simultaneously. A small child standing next to him was killed. No American soldiers were punished.

Abu Ahmed’s story seems even more poignant as the constitutional drafting process continues. A few weeks later, the interim Constitution is finished with a bill of rights inside. But the U.S. military continues to ignore the Governing Council and the interim constitution, launching a massive assault on the city of Fallujah that killed so many Iraqi civilians that the municipal football stadium had to be turned into a graveyard for the dead.

Pachachi decries the attack: "It is not right to punish all the people of Fallujah" to stop a few terrorists, he says. "We consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal."

But Pachachi’s condemnation and those of his colleagues on the Governing Council do nothing to stop the American assault. By the time the film ends, Pachachi has left Iraq entirely. The final scene is an interview in London’s Hyde Park. In it, Pachachi says he was offered the presidency of Iraq but turned it down because he wouldn’t have had the power to stop American assaults like the bombing of Fallujah.

"I believe I would not have lasted," he says. "There are many people who have a tremendous hunger for power. They will do anything to disrupt the process to keep whatever power they have. We have to work against these people."