Constitution on the Brink

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

WHILE TALKS over the Iraqi constitution continue in Baghdad, the results so far can only be worrisome for those who hoped the process would help consolidate a new democratic political order and alleviate the Sunni insurgency. The completion of a constitution in the coming days would keep Iraq on track toward holding elections and forming a permanent government by early next year, a timetable the Bush administration has made an overriding priority. Yet both the means adopted to complete the draft and some of the language reported to be in the document risk exacerbating the divide between Iraq's majority Shiite and Kurd communities and the minority Sunnis, thereby adding fuel to the insurgency. Iraqis and U.S. officials need to make good use of the brief time between now and the scheduled meeting of the National Assembly tomorrow if that outcome is to be avoided.

After missing the first deadline for completing the constitution, Shiite and Kurd leaders submitted a draft to the National Assembly Monday only after excluding Sunnis from their negotiations. Many Shiite leaders appear to favor ratifying that draft over Sunni objections. In part the sentiment is understandable: The mostly unelected Sunni representatives, who tacitly and sometimes explicitly seek to use the insurgency as leverage, have been uncompromising. They demand a powerful central government that would be incompatible with a democratic and pluralistic Iraq; some no doubt still dream of restoring Sunni dictatorship. Still, the stabilization of Iraq requires Shiite, Kurd and Sunni leaders to compromise on such crucial questions as the degree of federalization and sharing of oil revenue. By forcing through their own solutions, the Shiites and Kurds will merely forestall any compromise, while giving Sunnis a more tangible cause for rebellion than mere nostalgia for Saddam Hussein.

No reliable text of the constitution had been made public by yesterday evening; various drafts, both old and new, were said to be circulating in Baghdad. Much of the language obtained by Iraqi and Western media outlets appeared similar to that of the temporary constitution approved by Iraqi leaders under U.S. supervision in March 2004. In both the temporary constitution and the new draft, Islam is cited as one source of legislation, and they prohibit laws that conflict with Islamic principles, democratic standards or a bill of rights that includes freedom of religion. That's comparable to the new Afghan constitution and more liberal than the charters of most Muslim states, including such U.S. allies as Egypt and Jordan. However, complicated provisions for family law cited in some drafts could restrict rights for women in parts of Iraq; and much could depend on the interpretation of the competing clauses on Islam and human rights by a court that reportedly could be made up at least in part by clerics.

Of even greater concern are some of the provisions for local rule reportedly agreed upon by the Shiites and Kurds. While the temporary constitution already allowed the formation of regional governments, several reports said Monday's draft would allow those governments to form and control their own security forces. By some accounts, they would also obtain revenue from new oil wells. That raises the prospect of Kurdish and Shiite mini-states in the north and south that would eventually control a disproportionate share of Iraq's wealth, at the expense of Baghdad and Sunni areas. A Shiite region in southern Iraq also could move quickly toward de facto Islamic rule, regardless of the constitution's language or decisions by the national government.

In short, what some Shiite and Kurd leaders are calling federalism looks dangerously like a recipe for partition or civil war. Perhaps the intractable insurgency has convinced these Iraqis that they must amputate and starve the Sunni heartland. Yet as American soldiers do most of the fighting against the Sunni insurgents, that solution would be disastrous for the U.S. mission and Western security more generally. Iraq's constitution must provide a way for the Sunni community to prosper in a federal democracy. And if at all possible, it must be adopted with Sunni support.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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