September 27, 2005

Constitutional Wrangles

From the conclusion to a recently published ICG report:

The process of drafting a constitution has revealed -- indeed, exacerbated -- profound truths about the current state of Iraqi politics and society. First of all, the polity is marked by growing ethno-sectarianism in which Iraqis identify strictly with their own preferred, self-defined community and interpret events exclusively through an ethno-sectarian lens. Like the 30 January elections, the rushed constitutional process encouraged such polarisation as Iraqis sought to maximise their political gains on the basis of group identity. The political process thereby has become a dangerous sociological process of affirmation of one's ethnic/sectarian identity. The Kurds are a prime example, as they seek to maximise the possibility of later secession. But they are not alone. The Shiite political parties are also seeking to maximise their benefits regardless of the viability of the future Iraqi state, and Sunni Arabs are in a reflexive, "anti-everything" mode to protect what they have left. Initiatives to establish non-sectarian political parties or movements have largely failed. The only such movement of any significance today is the highly informal and purely tactical alliance between Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite followers and segments of the Sunni Arab community.

A second truth is that the disparate class of former exiles and expatriates that has ruled Iraq since the war and has drafted both the TAL and the current constitution is virtually as out of touch with popular sentiment as it was April 2003. Some are seen, with a certain justification, as carpet-baggers intent on capitalising on skills learned in exile. Others have proved incapable of bridging the yawning gap between their worldview and that of most Iraqis, who have never had the chance to express themselves freely, develop their political views or travel outside the country. Muqtada al-Sadr's brand of fiery nationalism feeds in part on the resentment many ordinary Iraqis feel toward these outsiders, who arrived to take power on the heels of a foreign military intervention that many experienced as liberating and humiliating in equal measure.

What these suggest is that the fissures tearing apart Iraq's body politic may be too deep to heal, certainly by a process as contentious as the drafting of a constitution. Such a process and its end product were never deemed sufficient by themselves to calm the feuding communities. Unfortunately, the way in which drafting was conducted has excited rather than pacified the situation. At this point, however, without a national consensus embodied in a permanent constitution, there is little that can halt the slide toward civil war, chaos and dissolution. Drafting a constitution based on compromise and consensus arguably could have been a first step in a healing process. Instead, it is proving yet another step in a process of depressing decline.

Today, only a determined political intervention by the U.S. might be capable of creating the elusive political consensus that could help prevent the country's violent break-up. Only Washington may have the leverage necessary to bring the sides around the table to forge a durable compact, as leaders of all three communities readily acknowledge. If the U.S. tries, it should suggest language to bridge existing gaps. The questions of federalism and Baath party membership will need to be addressed head-on. The administration should push leaders of the three communities to continue negotiations, not over amendments to the constitution, but over a political agreement that would serve as a guarantee that future legislatures would not threaten the existential interests of one of Iraq's principal communities.

Ultimately, while the successful negotiation of an agreement embraced by Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs may help restabilise Iraq, there is no guarantee it will do so. It must be accompanied by concerted steps to halt sectarian strife and pursue a broadly acceptable solution to the question of Kirkuk, whose unresolved status may ignite a war between Arabs and Kurds. If the U.S. fails to pick up the baton, Iraq may face a scenario in which the constitution is adopted on 15 October and a government is elected by 15 December that will lack a strong political compact underpinning its legitimacy. In that case, the country's feared descent into civil war and disintegration, with mass expulsions in areas of mixed population (including Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk), could well become a reality.

It has been suggested that the constitution could be rejected on 15 October, opening the way for new elections (one in which Sunni Arabs are presumed to drop their boycott and participate in large numbers), a new national assembly, and a renewed effort to draft the constitution within a year. This assumes the Sunni Arabs' ability to muster a two-thirds majority in any three governorates or, in alliance with other disaffected elements, a simple majority nationwide. While Sunni Arabs are thought to constitute the demographic majority in four governorates (al-Anbar, Nineveh, Salah al-Din and Diyala), the community is probably too divided -- over whether to vote and thereby legitimise the process or stay home and suffer a constitution harmful to their interests -- to be able to mobilise sufficient turn-out. And while other Iraqis opposed to the constitution, such as, potentially, followers of Muqtada Sadr, may come out in large numbers to vote "no", they are largely absent in predominantly Sunni Arab governorates, and along with the Sunni Arabs are unlikely to clear the 50+ per cent threshold needed to defeat the constitution nationwide.

Wouldn't that be ironic? Maybe Hinderaker is right, and this is good news! We should be rooting for a defeat of the constitution, and celebrating the prospects of high Sunni turn-out! The Sunnis would see that the ballot-box can work, and there would be new breathing room for a constitutional process that didn't appear to shove a Shi'a-Kurdish condominium down the throats of the aggrieved Sunnis. Maybe that would finally weaken the insurgency...yes, I'm being somewhat facetious (I think!). Seriously, however, one must wonder if the Shi'a and Kurds would be willing to wait out another year of constitutional wrangling, should the constitution be defeated (which is doubtful), instead of forgoing protracted negotiations for the temptations of crude majoritarianism. But that's where, of course, the U.S. troop presence comes in. If we are there, we can help guide the process and act as facilitator and behind-the-scenes arbitrator. If we cut and run, the chances of a civil war ratchet up hugely. I wouldn't be surprised, especially if the constitution were somewhow defeated, to see American forces more and more in a posture of animosity with the Shi'a (including non-Sadrites, in the first instance, as Sadr is opposed to the constitution--though he would then join a Shi'a insurrection) and Kurds--with U.S. forces playing more of a protective role vis-a-vis the Sunni (Zarqawi and fundamentalists groupings aside). Stranger things have happened...

Posted by Gregory at September 27, 2005 05:11 AM | TrackBack (0)

The notion that a Sunni Arab - Sunni Kurd - Shia Arab consensus was or ever will be within reach is half-baked at best.

There are irreconcilable differences at issue here. The most one can reasonably expect is some kind of detente between the factions. That has been possible between the Sunni Kurds and Shia Arabs in the face of a common enemy that targets them both (though in unequal measure).

It would be great if the Sunni Arabs defeated the constitution at the polls. It doesn't sound likely to me.

The more likely solution is for a federal Iraq to be shaped to give each of the groups a part of what they are asking for. That might involve allowing former Baathists to becomes mayors of places like Tikrit and Ramadi if the people there elect them.

That would be a small price to pay for a measure of detente.

Posted by: JohnFH at September 27, 2005 05:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We hope the Sunnis will put their guns down for long enough to vote "no" on the constitution. The knuckleheads may not take the cue, however, and attack the polling places. This would be a bad career move for them.

Posted by: Chuck Betz at September 27, 2005 06:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

One, deep sectarianism is not the problem; violent sectarianism is. A political Iraq is unlikely to be a unified Iraq, between the deep religious and again ethnic divides of the country.

The Sunni want what they can't have, and ironically, isn't good for them in the first place; a strong central government embodying their ideas. An initial 'no' vote may just get them a strong central government, over the Kurdish objections, but will certainly not give them a commanding presence over the Shia; the Sunnis are quite likely to balk nearly any agreement short of re-Baathication. Or has a kinder, gentler Sunni platform formed while I was out?

So what's the point in rooting for the failure of the constitution that at least is tolerable for two-thirds of the country for hope of getting one intolerable by all? Having some trouble this thing on?

Posted by: Brad at September 27, 2005 06:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the real question is the future of Shia politics.

My earlier optism was based on the notion that the Shia would NOT be interested in federalism, as they are the majority in the country. And earlly in the occupation, they seemed cool to the idea, which was mainly a Kurdish project.

What has changed is the breakdown of Shia politics. Sadr City is shia and largely Sadrist. The other more middle class Shia of Baghdad seem more supportive of Chalabi and other secularist leaders. Breaking off a Shia region in the South seems designed to insure the dominance of SCIRI (and maybe to a lesser extend Dawa). Yet the Sadrists, and many secularist Shiites remain in the UIA, a Shiite coalition led by SCIRI and Dawa. IF teh constitution loses, will the UIA coalition survive? It was cobbled together based largely on the driging will of Ayatollah Sistani - will all the Shiites follow Sistani to the brink of civil war? Does Sistani think civil war likely?

I would b einterested in seeing more discussion of this.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 27, 2005 05:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

oh, and greg, you dropped the last paragraph, which mentioned two bright spots - the likelihood of growing Sunni participation, and the revision of the electoral system from Prop rep to districts.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 27, 2005 05:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Lets just withdrawal, and ask the Iranians to maintain security in Iraq as we abandon Iraqs provinces one by one. We might be able to avoid a civil war that way....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at September 27, 2005 05:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"It has been suggested that the constitution could be rejected on 15 October, opening the way for new elections (one in which Sunni Arabs are presumed to drop their boycott and participate in large numbers)"

Unless my memory is failing me, the Sunnis make up less than 20% of what we call "Iraq." Even if they turn out "in large numbers" their impact on the kind of government being set up will remain minimal.

Won't it?

Posted by: Jack Lindahl at September 28, 2005 01:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What exactly were our objectives when we went across the border? IMHO, it was first, not to enforce the ceasefire terms Saddam had agreed to in '91; second, not be sportsmanlike and wait for Saddam to "fire on Fort Sumter" with chemical or biological weapons while we waited for that pecksniff Hans Blix to finish his very elegant tour of the country; third, to give the Arab nations a case study in alternatives to the thugs they had been living under since Sykes-Picot. If we get the kind of turnout Mr. Hinderaker was sneered at for projecting, I think we will have accomplished our part of the mission. We never promised to turn the place into a paradise, just a place where you didn't have your tongue cut out if you did not praise Saddam enough at your child's birthday party.

For a very interesting take on these issues, from a very surprising source, go look at Kevin Drum's comments at

Posted by: wayne at September 28, 2005 02:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know how the word "not" got in the above comment, I realize it doesn't make much sense as posted, please ignore that word and reread it as' first, to enforce the ceasefire...
Sorry. And the Kevin Drum comment was from 9/26/05 if my link is bad.

Posted by: wayne at September 28, 2005 02:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

" If we are there, we can help guide the process and act as facilitator and behind-the-scenes arbitrator. If we cut and run, the chances of a civil war ratchet up hugely."

I'd be pleased if we could salvage something from this unbelievable mess, but I'm curious as to how, exactly, you see US forces being able to facilitate or arbitrate anything, considering our track record so far.

Do any of the factions trust us? No.

Is there any credible reason they should? No.

Has the Administration sent anyone to Iraq who is an accomplished facilitator? If so, what are their successes?

US troops have their hands full to overflowing already fighting the insurgency and training Iraqi troops. Do you foresee them also having a vital role in the facilitation/arbitration?

No matter how fine and brave our soldiers are, they're not process managers. (I'm hoping you realize that "facilitating and arbitrating" a political process isn't something "anyone" can do. "Anyone" can't - not even in a corporate environment, much less a hostile, shattered, violent, chaotic battlefield of a country.)

And if our soldiers' role in the process will be that of escorting and bodyguarding the facilitators, doesn't that kind of divert them from the fighting and training?

Posted by: CaseyL at September 28, 2005 03:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Has the Administration sent anyone to Iraq who is an accomplished facilitator? If so, what are their successes?"

Zalmay Khalilzad/ Prinicple success, setting up the initial Karzai govt in Afghanistan.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 28, 2005 02:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Query how "a profound truth" can be "exacerbated"?

Posted by: Dzyorzh at September 28, 2005 08:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Posted on Wed, Sep. 28, 2005

Opposition to Iraqi constitution weakening

By Nancy A. Youssef

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The two strongest opponents of Iraq's proposed new constitution said this week that they wouldn't campaign against it aggressively, making it likely that voters will approve the constitution in an Oct. 15 referendum.

Passage would be a victory for the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but it's unclear whether the document will produce a stable Iraqi government with broad public support or further alienate the country's Sunni Muslim Arab minority.

[b]Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's representatives said that while he's not thrilled about the constitution, he likely wouldn't encourage his followers to oppose it. [/b]

Hazem al-Araji, a senior al-Sadr aide, said that al-Sadr has formed a committee to review the document and that once he hears from them he'll make a final decision.

"But for now, his opinion is neutral," al-Araji said.

[b]The largest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that although it has encouraged its supporters to vote down the document, its efforts are focused on the December election for a new National Assembly.

"There are powers that will make sure this bad constitution passes," said Ala'a al-Maki, a party spokesman. "We are focusing more on ensuring the Sunnis participate in the next election." [/b]

Both al-Sadr's supporters and members of the Islamic Party said they're concerned that federalist provisions in the constitution could divide the country along sectarian lines.

Al-Sadr's and the Islamic Party's positions - coupled with last week's call from associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, to pass the document - virtually assure that the constitution will pass. A word from the widely revered al-Sistani will sway much of the Shiite populace, which makes up 60 percent of Iraqis.

[b]Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, said the Islamic Party is focusing on the December elections because it wants to influence how the constitution is implemented.

"They don't think this constitution is the end of the political process," al-Nuaimi said. [/b]

The best hope is that Sunnis will participate in elections even though they oppose the constitution, and that broadening participation in a legitimate political process will undercut the insurgency, which draws its support from the Sunni community.

Still, some worry that the constitution could further fuel sectarianism. Some Sunni members of the constitutional committee said the proposed document serves Shiites and Kurds more than the Sunnis.

For the referendum to fail, two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 19 provinces must reject it.

Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, is expected to vote "no."

Had al-Sadr told his followers to vote against the constitution, Baghdad - a province by itself - also might have voted it down. Al-Sadr has as many as 2 million supporters among Baghdad's 5 million residents.

Sheik Homan al-Hamoodi, the chairman of the constitutional committee, said that the third "no" vote might have come from Salah al-Din or Diyala provinces, ethnically mixed northern communities where al-Sadr has influence.

"There is no way this constitution won't pass," al-Nuaimi said. "The law only allows one way to vote it down, and it is now impossible."

Earlier this month, al-Sadr suggested that he'd oppose the document, and some thought he'd issue a fatwa, or religious decree, telling followers to vote it down. But in the last week, his advisers backpedaled.

Members of the Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association, a prominent Sunni group, had said privately that they hoped to build an alliance with al-Sadr to stop the referendum from passing.

[b]Although the Islamic Party isn't rallying its base against the constitution, it is encouraging Sunnis to vote "no" in sermons in mosques and mass advertising. [/b]

Al-Hamoodi, of the constitutional committee, said that al-Sadr's tepid endorsement still could sway some to vote against it, but not enough to reject it. And he said that al-Sadr is withholding his opinion because it does not benefit him politically.

"His position will be positive. Even if he has a negative opinion, he won't share it," al-Hamoodi said. "He knows if this constitution fails, they can't get a better one."

Al-Sadr doesn't want to come out against al-Sistani, he said, because that would force Shiites to choose between the two. And depending on whom they follow, that could make al-Sadr look weak politically.

Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Alaa al Baldawy and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Baghdad.

Posted by: liberalhawk at September 29, 2005 06:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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