Where Charter Is Least Of Worries

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 7, 2005

SAMAWAH, Iraq -- The first copies of the draft constitution that would remake Iraq arrived in this sandy provincial capital in U.S. military helicopters, offloaded with a phalanx of neatly pressed and jacketed Iraqi officials keen to explain the charter.

U.S., Australian and British soldiers carted about half a dozen boxes filled with copies of the charter into the dilapidated, sparely furnished government offices for tribal, religious and political leaders of Muthanna province to peruse late Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Mohammed Hassani, deep in dialogue with the rare visitors from the central government in far-off Baghdad, idly leafed through a proffered copy. Turning back to his visitors, he let the document fall into the crack of his armchair seat cushion. In a meeting that, because of daily power cuts, had to be illuminated by the headlights of police trucks pulled up to the windows of the governor's office, Hassani had more pressing concerns.

When would Baghdad provide his province enough electricity? Hassani and the robed sheiks ringed around him wanted to know. When would Baghdad provide clean water, better roads? "The government should support the prices of the crops," the governor added, midway through what would be hours of petitioning by the provincial officials.

"They let me know they had this specific number of missing chairs in the elementary school and wanted to know exactly who was going to provide them," the central government's top spokesman, Laith Kubba, said afterward. "I can't say there were many questions about the constitution."

In Muthanna, whose half-million residents are 97 percent Shiite Muslim and unswervingly loyal to their tribes, approval of the constitution in the Oct. 15 national referendum is a "foregone conclusion," Kubba noted.

The traditional fealty among Iraq's southern Shiites to the dictates of their tribal leaders, plus a strong sense that the constitution in general is a good thing for Iraq's newly empowered Shiite majority, makes support for the charter a lock. Only the strong opposition of Sunni Muslim Arabs -- a minority whose demands for the constitution went largely ignored in the "majority wins, minority loses" atmosphere of Iraq's new democracy -- makes defeat of the constitution a possibility.

The unveiling of the constitution in Samawah revealed just how unsophisticated, almost pre-political, the democracy is, and how loyal the majority is to the Shiite tribal, religious and political leaders steering Iraq.

Raysan Zayady, a sports jacket over his white dishdasha and sheer summer robe, was asked whether he would advise his tribe how to vote. "Of course," the sheik replied. "I have told my tribal people they will vote yes on the constitution."

Zayady had yet to read the draft constitution, although he clutched one of the newly distributed copies in his hand. "I don't have e-mail," he confessed.

The fact that Shiite politicians in Baghdad had signed off on the charter was good enough for Zayady -- and, he said, good enough for the 5,000 members of his tribe.

"We trust our political leaders to make a constitution that is for the good of the people," the sheik said.

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