Juan Cole: The Iraqi Constitution ... DOA?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.]

On Thursday, the third deadline for finishing Iraq's new constitution passed without agreement, as Sunni leaders balked at Shiite and Kurdish demands for federalism and regional control of oil wealth. In response, Shiite leaders threatened -- yet again -- to bypass the Sunnis, use their majority to approve it in Parliament, and take it to the Iraqi people for a national referendum.

Whether the constitution is sent to the Iraqi people without Sunni approval or is once again returned to the election committee for negotiations is almost irrelevant. The divisions are so intractable that the Sunnis are going to be marginalized, and enraged, in any event. The upshot: America's political vision for Iraq lies in tatters, and the Bush administration has largely itself to blame.

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush issued what could be seen as a threat against Sunni Arab political leaders in Iraq who threatened to launch an uprising (intifada) against the new constitution. Bush said,"This talk about Sunnis rising up, I mean the Sunnis have got to make a choice. Do they want to live in a society that's free, or do they want to live in violence?" Mind you, the politicians who spoke of uprisings and streets aflame were the very ones who participated in the drafting of a new constitution, risking their lives to do so because the guerrillas see this participation as a form of collaboration with the occupiers. They had been frustrated by their marginalization on the drafting committee, and by the high-handed way that Shiites and Kurds have implemented their vision of an Iraq that looks more like the European Union than like a sovereign nation-state.

Bush's bluster is especially ironic since his administration's missteps contributed mightily to the crisis. The United States pursued the policy, now almost universally acknowledged to have been disastrous, of dissolving the Iraqi army and banning former Baath members from government jobs, a policy that hurt middle-class Sunni Arabs badly and helped push them into supporting the guerrilla movement. The United States signed off on the United Nations plan to have a proportional election system, which ended up working to exclude the Sunni Arabs. (In a district-based system, Sunni Arabs would have been represented even in case of a low turnout.) Bush's massive assault on Fallujah in November 2004, threw the entire Sunni Arab heartland into chaos -- even previously quiet cities such as Mosul -- and so embittered the Sunnis as to discourage their participation. In Bush's rush to ally with the victors of the Jan. 30 elections, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, both Shiite fundamentalist groups, he gave them the impression of strong backing from Washington and made them less willing to compromise. After the disaster of the Jan. 30 election results, which left the Sunni Arabs with little representation in the government, the Bush administration did, to its credit, finally step in to push for proper Sunni Arab representation on the constitution-drafting committee. But by then it may have been too late.

More than anything else, the Sunnis oppose the plans of the Kurdistan Provincial Confederation and the mooted Shiite Provincial Confederation ("Sumer") to keep substantial amounts of the petroleum profits in the regions rather than sharing them. The constitution even leaves open the possibility that regional confederations could claim 100 percent of the oil fields developed in the future. The Sunni Arabs have no petroleum resources in the region at the moment, and although geologists think there may be a big field near Fallujah, such speculation has often not panned out. In the short and medium term at least, the Sunni Arabs would get much less than their fair share of the nation's oil patrimony. The Sunni Arab street in Iraq feels that the moral economy of the oil state has been violated, and it will never accept such second-class citizenship -- contrary to the sunny views of David Brooks, whose New York Times column Thursday cited Peter Galbraith as saying that ordinary Sunnis would come to see that the constitution was good for them.

This is the background that allows us to understand how even the cooperative Sunni Arab figures are now threatening an intifada. In the balance hangs Iraq's new constitution, waiting for the approval of which has become rather like waiting for Godot. Even if it is approved by the National Assembly, the constitution faces an Oct. 15 national referendum. Iraqis in every one of the 18 provinces will be able to vote yes or no on the document, which allows substantial decentralization but requires that Parliament pass no civil legislation that contradicts Islamic law. Because the Kurds feared a tyranny of the Shiite majority, they inserted a clause into the interim constitution that allows any three provinces to reject the constitution by a margin of two-thirds. The Sunnis are gearing up to hoist the Kurds on their own petard, by using this clause to reject a constitution that the Kurds like but the Sunni Arabs dread. ...

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