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June 18, 2005

Iraq's Democratic Engine Not Turning Over

by Jim Lobe

Now that Sunni Arabs have been included, Iraq's parliamentary committee that is drafting the new constitution is the closest to an elected, representative body that the country has ever seen. In the two months that the committee now has to come up with the draft and in the referendum that will follow in October, it will become clear if that is enough to stabilize the country and reduce the violence.

It is by now a truism to say that the Sunnis, who ruled the country for centuries before the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago despite being a minority, are largely responsible for the insurgency. They are said to chafe at their loss of power, and consequently income, and are fighting either to restore their old dominance or to cut a better deal. The coming months should show whether the rest of Iraq can cope with these issues and whether this really is what it is all about.

Early signs are not encouraging, especially from the Sunni side. While members of the Sunni political, social, and religious groups that negotiated the deal to join the constitutional committee voiced hopes that their participation would increase peace and stability, the influential Sunni Committee of Muslim Scholars denounced the deal.

"We can never accept any process orchestrated from behind the scenes by the occupation," said Sheik Abdel Salam al-Kubaisi from the Committee.

Such pronouncements should be taken seriously as they have in the past provided a clear indication of the mood among the insurgents.

The phrasing of the denunciation also chimes with what other pro-insurgency politicians have said: any deal that flows from the post-invasion structure of the country will be rejected. The only possible solution for the hardcore militants is either a return of the pre-invasion government or to a government dominated by them.

The hardcore may not represent the whole Sunni population, and it is encouraging that the groups that negotiated participation in the constitutional committee in the end accepted a compromise of 17 seats. That will give them two more seats on the 70-member committee than the Kurds to whom they are roughly equal in size. But it is well below the 27 that the Sunnis had demanded.

Iraq's Shi'ites make up approximately 60 percent of the country's 26 million people, with the Kurds and the Sunnis both on 16-20 percent, and other minorities such as Christians making up the rest.

That the Sunnis have now joined the constitution drafting process is seen as a sign that they are willing to join the political system after having largely boycotted January's parliamentary elections. They only hold 17 seats in the 275-member Council.

Another positive sign is the apparent willingness of the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to embrace inclusiveness, albeit after U.S. urging.

But powerful Shi'ite leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have made very clear that they will not tolerate any challenges to the political dominance of their group in the new Iraq, based on their numbers. How much leeway he will give the Shi'ite politicians may well depend on how his more radical, anti-American rival Moqtada Sadr reacts to the constitutional process.

All groups are restrained by the terms of the interim constitution under which the new one is being drafted.

The final document will first have to be approved by parliament, but then it will face a much tougher hurdle in a referendum that is set for October. In that poll, the draft will have to get the nod from at least 16 out of Iraq's 18 governorates. Four governorates have Sunni majorities, giving them a blocking vote.

If the constitution is rejected, new elections will follow and the process will start all over again, which may be an attractive option for the Sunnis who feel seriously underrepresented, and for the insurgents who could see a chance to wreak more havoc.

Ironically, it may also suit the Bush administration, since it would give the United States more reason to keep its troops in Iraq. Following a dip in support for the war among Americans, some lawmakers have demanded an early exit, by the beginning of next year. The administration has rejected this.

Even without all this, it would be hard to see whether Iraqis can ever draw up a constitution that will reconcile the positions of all groups. Unfortunately, this has little to do with high-minded demands and more with a fight over the division of the spoils.

It is hard to see, for example, how Kurds and Sunnis will resolve their disagreement over the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both. And will oil income from the Shi'ite south be shared with the rest of the country?

Will the presidency, the prime minister's position, and the central government ministries be assigned on a sectarian basis? And what about government contracts and jobs? Because that is what it is all about, with each group demanding its share and not having any confidence that a neutral system will emerge.

On questions of principle, the divisions run at least as deep. Kurdish autonomy is a foregone conclusion, but how about the role of Islam in the country? Kurds are dead set against it, Shi'ites are in favor of a strong Islamic flavor, and Sunnis are somewhere in the middle, in favor of their own brand of Islam but furiously opposed to what they see as the "Iranian" tendencies of the Shi'ites.

In the end, Iraq may not be able to solve all these questions, and the only thing that may really count is strengthening of the army and the security forces so that a central government can impose its will on reluctant parts of society.

Unfortunately, progress toward that goal is extremely slow and uneven. Iraqis who see that the government has no power to impose its own laws may be even less inclined to vote for a then meaningless constitution.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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