Iraq: What's Next?

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Now that a draft of the Iraqi constitution has been accepted by the Iraqi National Assembly — but not, presumably a "final, final draft" as negotiations appear to be continuing in the hope of securing Sunni support — some form of the charter is set to go before the Iraqi people for an Oct. 15 referendum. It was pushed through over Sunni Arab objections to "federalism," which they say will spell the dismemberment of Iraq. A process that was to showcase Iraq's unity and bring disgruntled Sunnis into the political process has instead deepened divisions and stoked distrust.

What happens next?

Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians will hit the hustings in a bid to get their supporters to turn out in October to vote "yes" on the document. Sunni politicians and tribal leaders will do the same for a "no" vote, but it's unclear what the result will be. Under the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law, if two thirds of the voters in any three provinces vote "no," the charter is rejected, meaning that elections for a new parliament must be held and the process starts all over again. The Sunnis have majorities in four provinces, but in only two provinces are those majorities large enough to scuttle the constitution. Despite massive voter registration drives on the part of the Sunnis, to get the numbers needed, they will have to ally themselves with other forces, most likely those of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands the loyalty of millions of poor Shi'ites in Baghdad and across the south. Al-Sadr has spoken out against federalism and is involved in a power struggle with the major Shi'ite party backing the constitution. But thus far, he has kept his intentions in the referendum to himself, and is being courted by all sides.

If the constitution was so contentious, what does this mean for ending the insurgency?

Nothing good, unfortunately. The Americans pinned their hopes on the idea that Sunni Arabs — who make up the backbone of the insurgency — could be included in the drafting of the document and shown than the political process works. But the Shi'ites and Kurds railroaded the Sunnis and passed the constitution after breaking a promise to achieve consensus. Instead of uniting to approve a document, the sectarian groups are further apart than ever, split over the issue of federalism.

While the failure of the constitution in October would be an embarrassment for the United States' efforts here, it would be a blessing for Iraqis. The Sunnis could point to a political victory and then prepare for elections that would see them increase their representation in a future parliament. This would dilute the power of the religious Shi'ite parties, who the Sunnis view as cat's-paws Iran. But if the Sunnis feel they've taken part in a political process and elections — at great risk to their own lives — and still lose to the Shi'ites, there's a risk the Sunni population will give up entirely on the process, worsening an already untenable situation.

What does the outcome of the constitutional process say about the extent of American influence in Baghdad now?

There's no question the Americans have less influence than they had before. The Shi'ite parties in the negotiations — Dawa, SCIRI and Badr Organization — dug in their heels so much that President George W. Bush called SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to ask him for more flexibility. The president failed to convince the cleric. Other accounts say the Americans in the embassy gave up trying to broker deals two days before the parliament accepted the draft on Aug. 28.

The problem is that the U.S. has become captive to the government it helped create. Baghdad knows Washington is not going to withdraw troops or decrease aid because the stakes of failure in Iraq are too high for the United States to abandon it prematurely. So there aren't many levers left to the Americans to influence the Iraqis. And without that influence, the Shi'ites and Kurds are free to engage in zero-sum politics, such as the constitutional process where there was little effort to accommodate Sunnis, even though America deemed Sunni inclusion crucial to undermining the insurgency and worked hard to pressure the Shi'ites and Kurds to comply.

Why are the Shi'ites doing this? Because they're betting that if the insurgency metastasizes into a full-scale civil war, they will receive U.S. backing against the Sunnis. This point was driven home by al-Hakim's son, Ammar, in Washington last month when he called for a "strategic alliance between Najaf and Washington." Najaf is the holiest city for the world's Shi'ites, and Shi'ites make up 60 percent of Iraq. Sunnis, however, make up about 85 percent of the world's Muslims. Taking the Shi'ite's sides in Iraq might buy them influence in that country, but there's a real risk that the U.S. will be seen as taking sides in Islam's greatest schism, decreasing influence in the greater Islamic world and, thus, weakening its hand in the greater war on terror.

Do all Shi'ites support the constitution?

No. Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of millions of poor Shi'ites in Sadr City in Baghdad and across the south, appears to be leaning against the constitution and his followers have demonstrated alongside Sunnis over the issue of federalism. SCIRI, Badr and Dawa all support the constitution. Significantly, they all have support from Iran while al-Sadr's relationship with Iraq's Persian neighbor has been stormy. His opposition to the constitution is more about limiting the influence of Iran rather than hard opposition to the principle of Iraqi federalism, while SCIRI and Badr are packed with Iranian sympathizers who are actively doing Tehran's bidding in Iraq. But there is an economic issue, too. Al-Sadr's base is primarily in Baghdad, and his people in the capital could be cut off from significant oil revenues and patronage if federal regions, such as the one proposed in the south by al-Hakim, have more control over the nation's petrodollars. Last week's clashes between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army forces and Badr militiamen in Najaf and other southern cities was a result of long-simmering tensions between the two groups, who hope to control Iraq for their own ends.