Iraq's Constitution: Where They Stand

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Khalid Mohammed/AP

DEAL, ALMOST: Iraqi constitution negotiations continued late into Monday night

As a second deadline bore down on Iraqi politicians trying to hammer out a constitution, Sunni members of the drafting committee called for another delay in presenting the charter. Fundamental issues—such as the role of Islam and the question of federalism—remained unresolved Monday evening. Nonetheless, by 8:30 p.m. in Baghdad Shi'ite legislators were saying a draft was ready. As news of the possible draft trickled out, Shi'ites celebrated in the streets of Najaf and Sunni negotiators held grim press conferences. At 11:40 p.m., the drafters sent a document to parliament that with the issue of federalism dangling and the Iraqi National Assembly will attempt to forge a consensus among the committee members over the next three days.

What happened?
As the day wore on, it seemed there were agreements on the role of Islam and Kurdish autonomy, but federalism remained a sticking point. The Sunni Arabs refused to accept the principle of a southern federal region as demanded by the head of SCIRI, a religious Shi'ite party with ties to Iran. So the Shi'ite and Kurdish delegates stopped including the Sunnis in talks. "In the last two days, there have been no general meetings including everybody," said Kurdish committee member Mahmoud Othman. Instead, he said, the negotiations were held between "interested parties," which usually included "members of the National Assembly." The 15 Sunni Arab members of the Constitutional Committee and 10 "advisors" were never elected as members to the National Assembly because Sunnis largely boycotted elections back in January.

In the end, the Kurds and Shi'ites crafted a deal between themselves and spent Monday evening trying to convince the Sunnis to come on board. They failed. "They are trying to push us aside," said Sunni negotiator Saleh Mutlak. Finally, the chairman of the committee, Sheikh Humam al-Hamoudi of SCIRI, presented a draft to the parliament without settling the issue of federalism. Fuming Sunnis warned darkly of civil war while pledging to vote down the document in the October referendum.

So what got decided?
The role of religion is settled—Islam will be the official religion of Iraq and it will be "a main source" of legislation rather than "the main source" of legislation, as many religious Shi'ites wanted. However, another article states that no laws passed may contradict Islam, which many fear will be used to establish a religious high court to vet legislation for Islamic consistency. This could be used to reduce the rights of Iraqi women, who enjoyed relatively liberal rights under Saddam's regime. Women's rights are an issue that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has previously emphasized as vital to U.S. interests. There is also a clause that states no law may contradict democratic values, setting up a clash within the proposed constitution from the start. What will take precedence? Democratic values that say all citizens are equal before the law or Islamic tenets that state that women are not equal to men in such matters as court testimony, divorce, marriage and inheritance? Of course, such contradictions aren't unique to Iraq; in the years following the ratification of the U.S. constitution there were whole classes of Americans (women, slaves) who were not given equal treatment, and the Iraqis may in time find a balance between Islamic law and democracy.

"The U.S. is giving ground on the Islamic governance, like they did in Afghanistan," Othman said. "But here it is different. After the Taliban, anything would be a step forward, but here, it's a step backward."

Oil revenues will be channeled through the central government, as the Sunnis wanted. This means Baghdad will decide which regions get the money. Sunnis have pressed hard for this because they feel that allowing provinces or federal regions to control the oil wealth will mean they will be left with little but the dry deserts of western Iraq.

What was deferred?
Federalism has remained a roadblock and the Sunnis' red line issue. They absolutely reject the idea of "federalism"—meaning empowered regional districts similar to the Kurdish region in the north—for the Shi'ites, saying it will lead to the breakup of the country and allow Iran undue influence over the south. This issue has been pushed through over Sunni objections causing the Sunnis to threaten to veto the constitution when it comes up for an Oct. 15 referendum. It's unclear how seriously to take this threat, because the constitution can only be vetoed if two-thirds of voters in any three provinces vote against it. Sunnis have large enough majorities in only two provinces—Anbar and Ninewah—and simple majorities in two others.

"Obviously our preference would be to get a document the Sunnis could sign," said the director of an international NGO involved in the constitutional process. But if the Sunnis decided not to support it but still participated in the referendum—if only to vote it down—"that would be great because then it becomes a democratic contest over the rule of law."

What happens next?
For the next three days, the National Assembly will work to hammer out what, exactly, Iraqi federalism will mean. Assuming it's approved by the parliament Thursday night, the draft will then go to the people of Iraq to be ratified in a referendum Oct. 15. Sunnis have already said they will campaign against it, but the Shi'ites and Kurds have said they will go to the Sunni communities to convince them to vote for it.

For Iraqis hoping for a turning point, Monday instead provided more uncertainty. A document the Americans hoped would start the forging of a national identity—and undermine a rampaging insurgency by drawing Sunnis into the process—is still unclear on what it means to be an Iraqi. Does it mean being primarily a religious Muslim or a citizen of Anbar? Must Iraqis choose between being a Kurd or an Arab?

Still, there has been one important victory. The Sunnis have complained of being cut out of the negotiating, but now that they're in the process they haven't shown any indication of leaving. Even in their pique, their opposition to the constitution looks like it will be expressed with ballots rather than bullets, and in a land that for a century has seen politics come from the barrel of a gun, that can be seen as a victory for Iraqis.