Why Iraqis Missed Their Deadline

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Last night, with 20 minutes to spare, Iraqi legislators decided to add a little extra time to the clock for approving Iraq's first permanent, post-Saddam constitution by amending the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) to grant themselves a 7-day extension to the Aug. 15 deadline.

What was the reason for the extension?

Constitutional Committee members were unable to break a deadlock over the issues of autonomy for the Kurds and their right to secede, and over the role of women. Kurds are sticking firm to their demands that their autonomous region in the north maintain a strong independence, receive the lion's share of oil revenues from the fields around the contested city of Kirkuk, and that the constitution grant them the right to secede after eight years. As for women's rights, under Saddam Hussein, family law that touched on most daily aspects of Iraqis' lives was relatively liberal. Women could refuse arranged marriages, could not be forced to wear the veil, had more of a say in divorce than they would have under Shari'ah law (which the Shi'ites are proposing should determine family law) and could keep custody of their children. These rights are now at issue.

Both sticking points are subsets of the greater problems facing Iraq: Federalism and the role of Islam in governance. Arabs and Kurds still can't agree on how much power should rest in Baghdad and how much should rest in the provincial capitals. Throughout its modern history, Iraq has been ruled from Baghdad with Sunnis holding the whip, and it is still the Sunnis who oppose decentralizing power to the provinces. The issue of women's rights is a proxy battle over the role of Islam in the constitution and society. There are many Iraqis — particularly religious Shi'ites — who strongly believe that Iraq is an Islamic country and the new charter should reflect and reinforce that character by forbidding any law from conflicting with Islam's Shari'ah law, which has been used in other Islamic countries to restrict the rights of women.

That these two issues are still the main obstacles to agreeing a draft constitution for approval in an Oct. 15 referendum indicates that the "national compact" touted by American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is foundering on the failure of Iraqis to forge a single national identity from their furnace of ethnic and sectarian groups.

What happens over the next week?

They keep talking. The Iraqis averted an even larger political crisis last night by amending the TAL, which held that failure to deliver by the deadline would have necessitated new elections. But this won't please the Americans, who had emphasized that meeting the Aug. 15 deadline was necessary to keep the political process moving forward. Iraqis on the committee, however, have often grumbled that they didn't like having to write a constitution so quickly "just to please George Bush," as Kurdish committee member Mahmoud Othman said in July. The delay indicates that the U.S. has less leverage than many observers had thought. "This proves to the world that Iraqis are writing their own constitution," said Hajim al-Hassani, the speaker of parliament.

The Americans tried to put the best face on the setback, with Khalilzad congratulating the leaders for "taking a major step forward in drafting a new constitution." Noting a three-day delay because of a sandstorm, he added: "I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days."

And after that?

Assuming the Iraqis meet their new deadline, the Iraqi National Assembly must debate, amend and approve it ahead of the Oct. 15 referendum, where it must be approved by a majority of the voters — and can be vetoed if 2/3 of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it. The Sunnis have strong majorities in only two provinces, and couldn’t muster a veto on their own. The Kurds could easily scupper the process with their three provinces in the north, and the Shi'ites could do so with their majorities in 11 provinces, although no one expects them to apply the brakes.

The major sticking points that prevented agreement yesterday could be left for the Assembly to thrash out, or even for the first permanent parliament due to be elected on Dec. 15. This would benefit Sunnis, because they boycotted the January elections, leaving them unrepresented, but are expected to take part in the referendum and the December elections. And mollifying the Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, is a key strategy for America in pacifying Iraq to bring its soldiers home. That the Sunnis haven't walked away from the table yet is also a good sign that they see a chance to have more political oomph down the road when these issues are finally and fully addressed.