Millions of Iraqis vote today in the first genuine constitutional referendum in their nation's history. Despite the car bombs and intimidation by the terrorists, Iraqi citizens are expected to turn out in large numbers to exercise a right that many around the world take for granted.
Americans who read the draft constitution will find many of its provisions familiar. But what matters is that the draft constitution is a document written by Iraqis for Iraqis. It has every prospect of becoming the national compact needed for a free, peaceful and democratic country.
The draft constitution provides for a federal, not a partitioned, Iraq. It establishes a sensible separation of powers between branches and levels of government. The central government enjoys powers similar to those granted our own federal government. It has exclusive authority over national defense, fiscal policy, foreign affairs, customs, citizenship and commerce across internal boundaries. Iraq's oil and gas resources are owned by all Iraqis. A single Supreme Court -- not local or regional courts -- is the final interpreter of Iraqi law. The constitution does permit formation of new regional governments, but the power of these regions cannot intrude upon the exclusive powers of the central government.
These and other provisions not only reflect the interests of Shiites and Kurds but are also designed to appeal to Arab Sunnis. The constitution is the "guarantor of Iraq's unity," and the central government must "preserve the unity, integrity, independence and sovereignty of Iraq." A new commission to oversee de-Baathification procedures is charged with ensuring that such procedures meet the requirements of "justice, objectivity, and transparency." Federal and official institutions in the Kurdish region will use Arabic as well as Kurdish. And the next elected assembly -- not the constitution itself -- will establish procedures for forming new regional governments. All of these features are in response to particular Sunni demands.
The draft constitution wisely defers a number of important questions to the next elected assembly. This gives Sunnis a powerful incentive to participate in the December elections. The new assembly will decide the number of judges and mode of selection for Iraq's Supreme Court. It will also establish a second legislative chamber. The creation of these and other central institutions will require a two-thirds vote in the new assembly. This threshold ensures that all groups, including Sunnis, will have a pivotal role in designing the architecture of the Iraqi state. The next assembly will also help craft policies on how undeveloped oil and gas resources are to be managed and sustained. And just this week, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders agreed that if the constitution is ratified, the next assembly will appoint a committee to recommend further changes to be put to all Iraqis in a national referendum next summer.
Because of Iraq's new electoral law, there will be greater Sunni representation in the new assembly. Under the old electoral law, low Sunni turnout reduced the number of Sunnis elected to the assembly. Like our system, the new law will allocate seats based on population, not turnout. This change was made at Sunni behest.
The Sunni Arabs understand the efforts that have been made to meet their concerns -- and they are entering the political process. In the past two months, Sunni political parties have actively mobilized for the vote in December. According to the spokesman for Iraq's electoral commission, when Sunnis have had the opportunity to confirm their voter registration, their turnout has been unprecedented, especially in Fallujah and Ramadi. Many Sunni leaders who reject the draft constitution have nonetheless called for Sunni participation in the political process, regardless of the referendum result. They recognize that the next assembly is charged with answering what the constitution left open -- and must enact scores of laws to implement its more than 100 provisions.
The prospects for approval of the constitution improved this week. Iraq's largest Sunni political party (the Iraqi Islamic Party) and the powerful Sunni Religious Foundation endorsed the draft and have urged their followers to vote yes. They reversed their opposition to the constitution after Kurdish and Shiite leaders agreed to a final package of amendments. We must pay tribute to the foresight of many Shiite and Kurdish leaders. They made difficult compromises to accommodate Sunni Arab interests and ensure that Iraq's constitution -- and its democratic future -- was on firmer footing with support from all of Iraq's communities. These leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that their vision is an inclusive one, where all groups have a stake in Iraq's future.
But what if, despite these recent positive developments, the constitution is defeated at the polls? The political process continues. There will still be a vote in December for a new national assembly under the new electoral law. That assembly will then be charged with drafting a new constitution. And the new constitution will be considered in another referendum next year. Either way, the political process will continue to expand participation to all areas of the country and help isolate further the enemies of democracy in Iraq.
It's useful to recall our own constitutional experience when assessing what is taking place in Iraq today. The early draft approved by our Founders in Philadelphia required significant amendment -- our Bill of Rights -- to ensure ratification. The Constitution has since been amended 17 times. And the Constitution itself was a replacement for our initial attempt at a national compact -- the Articles of Confederation. By contrast, in less than three years, Iraq has emerged from a generation of tyranny to vote in a national referendum on a draft constitution written by an elected assembly. Whatever Iraqis decide, this is progress.
The writer is national security adviser to President Bush.