Monday, October 17, 2005

Iraq in the Balance {Print: Iraq in the balance}

Sunday, 16 October, 2005
Iraq in the balance
by Massoud A. Derhally (
The prospects of a HARMONIOUSand stable Iraq seem all the more elusive as the October 15 deadline for a referendum on the country’s constitution closes in. As Arabian Business went to press, the situation in the war-torn country appeared hazy. Various segments of the Iraq leadership from the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities were once again wedged in negotiations — as they were in the run up to the January elections and the initial negotiations that led to a draft constitution earlier this year. Each hopes that they will secure a strong and a favourable outcome for their own people.

The underlying cause of the fissure remains the issue of federalism and what seems to be an inclination by the Shiites and Kurds — at least in Sunni eyes — towards regional autonomy in southern and northern Iraq. There is also, of course, the prickly issue of Islam being a primary source of legislation, which has sparked concerns among women and Iraqis vying for a secular state.

Realising that, the current insurgency, largely comprised of disenchanted Sunnis, has been emboldened by the prospect of protracted negotiations. The US occupying forces, therefore, launched an all out assault on them and increased security throughout the country.

Saddam Hussein’s regime cruelly repressed the country’s Shiites — which account for 60% of the Iraq’s population — and mercilessly killed thousands of Kurds in the 1980s with mustard gas. The demise of the Baathist regime has also ignited an unquenchable thirst among the Kurds, which account for 25% of the country’s population, for the realisation of their independence — a fundamental point they seek to have cemented in a new constitution. But the newly found freedom has also accentuated the fervour of Shiites who want religion to be the source upon which the constitution is based.

“Unquestionably it is the issue of federalism. I think this has always been the biggest problem. People got [excited] about it — in particular, the issue of Islam and whether it had a definite or indefinite article. It was always clear that we were talking about a federal system, in which how issues such as the role of Islam in political and social life will be very much dependent on what will be the arrangements for decentralising power in Iraq,” says Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Federalism, in particular, has emerged as the key issue, because it permits Kurds to effectively run a secular system and allows the Shiites to discuss how issues of religious law will apply to civil life within their areas.

“Federalism is the key issue because it is the one that most concerns the Sunnis. That is not necessarily the primary concern of Shiites and Kurds. But it is the concern of those who thought the constitution might be a way of tying in the Sunnis and taking some of the heat out of the insurgency,” explains Partrick.

Before the draft constitution was finalised, Abdel Aziz Al Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq laid out an objective of a separate Shiite state. This compounded the concerns of the Sunnis, says Partrick. “In theory, there is no limit to the number of provinces that can form a very independent or highly autonomous region within Iraq, which has aggravated the concerns that the constitution can be a stepping-stone towards a break-up of the country.”

To some extent, Sunnis have accepted that there will be a highly independent entity called Kurdistan, but the idea that the Shiites are inclined to break away from Iraq themselves has caused real worries. “The constitution allows that as a possibility and it's aggravated the fears that the Sunnis have about whether this constitution can be another step on the road towards weakening the entity formally known as Iraq,” explains Partrick.

Creating a viable framework for the country doesn’t appear to be any easier today — even if there is a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, as is widely expected to be the case. The prospect of failure though, as illuminated by Amre Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League in the advent of his visit to Iraq, is civil war. Such an eventuality would almost certainly have reverberations throughout the wider Middle East.

This is a view that was echoed by a recent report from the International Crisis Group, which said “the only hope left is for the US to make a last-ditch effort to broker a true compromise that addresses core Sunni Arab concerns without crossing Shiite or Kurdish red lines.”

The ICG emphasised that the eventual constitution should, at a minimum, ensure that no more than four governorates could become a region through fusion, to assuage Sunni Arab fears of a Shiite super region in the south — and that Iraqis should not be excluded from public office or managerial positions on the basis of mere membership of the Baath party.

If “the constitution is adopted on 15 October and a government is elected by 15 December without a strong political agreement underpinning its legitimacy, descent into civil war and disintegration, with mass expulsions in areas of mixed population, could well become a reality,” the ICG report said.

As was the case in the run up to drafting of the constitution in August, Washington’s ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad and other US officials have tried to shore up support for the referendum in Iraq, by pressuring or coercing the country’s neighbouring countries into supporting the political process.

Arab support has largely been lacking and it remains to be seen whether Washington's pressure will have an impact on the country's future political landscape — given that the majority view in the region is that Iraq is a country in a state of disintegration and there will be a weak central government.

“The United States has a strong interest in seeing the constitution — any constitution — ratified, and will do anything within its power to see that happen," says William Beeman, a professor at Brown University. “This has nothing to do with the welfare of the Iraqi people — it is for the benefit of [US president] George W. Bush, who is in trouble at home.”

Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont agrees. “I think that American diplomacy is all about getting the constitution approved. I think that the constitution, as it is written, will bring about a very decentralised, weak Iraqi regime with de facto Kurdish independence and, perhaps, a similar regional government in the south. But right now, Washington is focused on getting it approved,” he says.

US pressure to amend the constitution — which hopes that the referendum on the charter would placate the Sunnis — did score some success on October 5 when parliament voted to modify a clause that would have allowed the constitution to pass despite opposition. The constitution will not pass if two thirds of the voters in at least three of the country’s 18 provinces vote against it on October 15.

“Heavy US involvement in the drafting of the constitution also will allow the document’s critics to charge that the constitution is not really a completely ‘Iraqi’ document,” cautions Wayne White, the former Deputy Director of US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for Near East and principal Iraq analyst.

“The ratification of the document would fuel even more Sunni Arab discontent, anger, and perceptions of increased disenfranchisement. Senior US Administration and military officials keep repeating that the interest on the part of Sunni Arabs in the referendum demonstrates that they want to become part of the political process, but, in reality, most Sunni Arabs are only interested in trying to veto the constitution in order to torpedo what they view as an emerging Shiite and Kurdish-dominated political order,” adds White.

Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, believes that rifts in the country remain pronounced and that efforts to assuage Sunni fears go beyond an amendment. “I think a lot of the animosity grew up in the Saddam period. It has been exacerbated by the American tendency to ‘balance’ things ethnically, but even more by the deliberate strategy of the Sunni Arab guerrillas to attack Shiites,” says Cole, adding, “There needs to be an amnesty for the Baathists and they need to be given back their jobs. There needs to be some sort of gesture to the Sunnis about sharing petroleum resources.”

De-Baathification and the disbanding of the army, overseen by Paul Bremer, America’s vice consult at the outset of the occupation, at the nudging of Ahmad Chalabi, made it much more difficult for political groups that cut across the sectarian divide to gain support.

To the University of Vermont's Gause the best case scenario would be “if the Sunni Arabs vote heavily in the referendum and then participate in the parliamentary elections. [Then], we might get an Iraqi assembly that is more representative and could take another crack at the constitution.”

But getting the Sunnis on board is not the only problem.

Many observers say the present legislation will erode women’s rights. Fears that women, who make up around 60% of the country’s population, will be severely affected, have led many women activists to take to the streets, and call for equal rights and that 40% of the new legislature be reserved for women.

In its present form, the constitution is unclear about what the operation of the principal of Islam as a basic source of legislation means. It “isn’t clear whether we are talking about a new definition of Islamic codes or whether we are talking about very local interpretation,” says Partrick of the EIU. “Because we are talking about federalism, it does mean we are talking about provinces, which form an autonomous region and then these issues of the role of women and religion will very much be defined in practice on the ground,” adds Partrick.

This means that the legal situation in terms of rights may look very different if one lives in Baghdad, which is exempt from any ideas of a separate region, or if one lives in Kurdistan.

What is likely to happen on October 15 is that a great number of Sunnis will boycott or vote no in the referendum. This is markedly different from the election process in January, in which the majority of Sunnis opted to boycott the elections. Still, in all likelihood the referendum will produce a ‘yes' vote and will as a result encourage Sunnis that have shunned the political process in the belief that they could not influence the outcome, to take part in the December elections.

It “won't undermine the process by which others in the Sunni Arab community will want to use December as the chance to still try and make further changes in the constitution and in the direction of the system,” says Partrick. “This is not a recipe for peace and stability but at the same time it means we are not inextricably moving towards civil conflict and the collapse of a political process. When we get to the end of the year and the December elections there will be a lot of pressures on the Sunnis taking part in the system.”