More Turmoil Ahead in Iraq

  • Share
  • Read Later

A funeral for one of the people killed in Kerbala

More than 270 Iraqis died in a wave of terrorist carnage Tuesday, and Coalition officials are expecting a lot more bad news as July draws near. That, British and U.S. officials say, is because those bent on sabotaging a transition to democracy in Iraq have planned a terror campaign designed to provoke a civil war before the Coalition restores sovereignty to an Iraqi authority on July 1. The good news, though, may be that mass killings of innocent civilians, such as the latest twin bombings directed at Shiite worshippers in Kerbala and Baghdad, may actually help the Coalition maintain the hard-won but inherently fragile consensus among Iraqis over their immediate future.

The Constitution Question

Tuesday's bombings delayed formal adoption by the Iraqi Governing Council of an interim constitution whose draft was finally agreed last Sunday after months of bitter wrangling. But Iraqi leaders presented a united front in condemning the attacks and urging Iraqis against responding to sectarian provocations. Despite deep differences, they share a common interest in keeping the transition process on track, and most sought to put the blame for Tuesday's massacre on foreign elements, such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jordanian fugitive Musab al-Zarqawi, dedicated to fomenting a civil war. The message: Don't fall into this bloody trap being laid by those who don't have Iraq's interests at heart.

But even as he blamed foreign extremists, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also held the U.S. responsible for failing to provide adequate security. Shiite warnings against being provoked into sectarian reprisals against their Sunni countrymen were accompanied by a restatement of the urgency of restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

That had taken a major step forward at the weekend with the adoption by the IGC of a draft Basic Law, or interim constitution, which was subsequently approved by U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer. The document represents an interim political consensus designed to avoid an intra-Iraqi battle for power, and as such reflects a hard-fought compromise on questions such as Kurdish autonomy, the rights of women and the role of Islam. Its democratic federal provisions, underpinned by a bill of rights guaranteeing freedoms familiar in the West, would make it something of a model constitution among Arab nations. But this is simply a set of guidelines for the period between the U.S. hand-over and the election of an Iraqi constitutional assembly — an interim of no more than six months to a year, as the draft constitution reportedly requires that elections be held by the end of this year or early in 2005. There's no guarantee of continuity between the principles enshrined in the interim constitution and those that might emerge in a permanent document adopted next year by an elected body whose makeup will likely be very different from that of the Iraqi Governing Council, and in which the U.S.-led coalition will have no say. That's because rather than resolve the most contentious issues that delayed the adoption of the Basic Law, it simply deferred them on the basis of a shared interest to get on with the business of returning sovereignty from the Coalition to Iraqis. Even then, it took a veto from Bremer to stop the drafters recognizing Islam as "the" source of legislation; the final version recognizes it as "a" source of legislation.

The Shiite leadership had previously scuttled Bremer's plan to transfer sovereignty to a provisional government created through carefully selected caucuses by insisting that Iraqis be allowed to vote for the body that writes their constitution. Compromising on the Basic Law, and even on how to constitute the interim authority that takes the baton from Bremer on July 1 was relatively simple for Ayatollah Sistani and his supporters, since they recognize these as a caretaker arrangement bridging the brief interlude between the transfer of sovereignty and the holding of elections. Because they make up almost two-thirds of Iraq's population, the Shiites see a democratic election as the best means to prevail in the future power arrangement. For the same reason, the Kurds, in particular, were hoping to have their autonomy codified before a new elected Iraqi leadership takes power in Baghdad. They had hoped to not only maintain their current functional autonomy in the territory carved out by the Coalition's Northern No-Fly Zone after the Gulf War, but also to extend it into the key oil-producing areas around Kirkuk and Mosul. In the end, all they got was a reaffirmation of the current arrangement, deferring future status to a new constitution. Analysts are expecting that Kurdish leaders on the IGC may have a tough time selling that to their increasingly independence-minded base.

The Huge Task Ahead

By deferring the most difficult questions over how power will be allocated in the new Iraq, the Basic Law leaves plenty of room for civil strife irrespective of the machinations of Mr. Zarqawi and his ilk. The elections for the assembly that will decide the future constitution now become the key focus, with the Shiites making clear that they'll brook no delay beyond the beginning of next year. Organizing those will fall to whatever interim government replaces Bremer's administration — a question not yet resolved after Bremer's caucus proposal collapsed in the face of Shiite opposition. Shiite leaders have demanded that the poll be conducted under UN supervision, and they have also left no doubt that they intend to use their power on the streets to press their case.

Shiite leaders and their followers, having been Iraq's disenfranchised majority since the country was first created by the British, remain suspicious of any effort to dilute the power they'll inherit with democracy. And attacks such as those in Kerbala and Baghdad on Tuesday will likely deepen their resolve to pursue the power that their majority would provide at the polls, and to resist anything that might be construed as a delay.

Tuesday's attacks, however, underscore the enormity of the task ahead. Everyone concerned with security in Iraq had plenty of reason to expect that terrorists seeking sectarian warfare would seek to turn the festival of Ashoura, in which millions of Shiite worshippers mass in the streets, into a bloodbath. And yet, for all the extra security precautions put in place, the anticipated carnage could not be stopped. It's not hard to imagine how the architects of Tuesday's attacks might respond to the prospect of Shiites massed outside polling stations once election day comes. Still, the Shiites have made clear they'll accept no delay of an election. Either way, the coming year in Iraq could prove to be even tougher for Iraqis than the last one.