Will Iraqis Make Their Constitution Deadline?

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Monday August 15 marks the deadline, prescribed by the U.S.-authored Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), for a new, permanent Iraqi constitution to be approved by the National Assembly. Political leaders have been in marathon negotiations for the last week in an effort to meet the deadline. But what happens if they don't?

Under the terms of the TAL, if they fail to meet the deadline, the government and parliament must be dissolved and new elections must be held — in essence, the process of making a new Iraqi constitution is set back to square one. Such a failure would be a huge blow to the Americans, who have pushed hard for this deadline, in the hope that achieving a viable political system will cut the support for the insurgency. Because the stakes are so high, few think that the deadline will be missed. Either some form of constitution will be submitted on time, which simply postpones deciding the tough issues until some later point, or else the TAL will be quickly amended to avoid the collapse of the Jaafari government.

What issues remain unresolved?

Federalism, the role of Islam and women's rights are still — after months of negotiations — key sticking points. The Kurds are demanding a loose federation designed to keep their “peshmerga” militia and the autonomy they've enjoyed in their territory for the past 14 years. They're also demanding final status talks on the city of Kirkuk, which they claim as a Kurdish city, but which was “Arabized” under Saddam Hussein. The Sunni Arabs are pushing back against the Kurdish claims on Kirkuk and Shi'ite demands for a similar autonomous region in the south. Sunni negotiators oppose federalism because they believe it would lead to the breakup of Iraq, but they're also worried that if the Shi'ites and the Kurds control their own regions, they'll horde the oil revenues rather than share them with the oil-parched central part of the country — the so-called Sunni heartland.

The Shi'ites, in addition to their own region, want a greater role for Islam in the constitution. The Kurds and Sunnis generally oppose a greater role for religion. Women's gropus are also concerned that a constitution based on Islam would curtail women's rights in Iraq, which are relatively liberal by the region's standards.

Earlier this week, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the largest Shiite party SCIRI, officially called for the creation of a Shi'ite region in the south after meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. What effect will this have on the process?

It will surely complicate things and possibly split the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's Dawa party, SCIRI's alliance partner, has opposed creating a Shi'ite region in the south. There is suspicion that Iran is behind Hakim's call because of fears that Iraq, under the new constitution, will have a weaker central government than it has now, meaning any Iranian influence via Baghdad will be curtailed as well. The proposal alarms the Americans, who never anticipated the emergence of an Iranian-influenced southern region. Iranian influence is widely perceived as one of the greatest challenges in post-Saddam Iraq.