This Week's Debate: Iraq's Constitution

This Saturday, Iraqis will head to the polls to vote on a proposed constitution. For a while now, the breakdown has been Shiites and Kurds in favor, Sunnis (whose minority sect ruled the country under Saddam Hussein) against. The big news right now is about a deal pushed by the American ambassador and brokered by various Iraqi political insiders, that has persuaded some Sunni leaders to encourage voting for the constitution. If the proposed constitution is approved, will it turn out to be all it's cracked up to be? (Or all it's feared to be?)

In an editorial today, the San Francisco Chronicle is understandably concerned that the constitution will split the country further, not unite it. The editorial also points out that Sunni leaders are still split -- some are telling their people to vote Yes, others still urging a No vote. To understand how the constitution could create the conditions for a more divided Iraq, this Washington Post editorial is a must read.

Remember, unless there is a two-thirds majority voting No in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces, the constitution will be approved. Eric Umansky's Slate piece, cleverly titled Sunni Side Up, provides a quick and useful roundup of yesterday's Iraq constitution news and notes, "Sunnis are about 20 percent of Iraq's population, with Shiites and Kurds -- who oppose Sunnis' constitutional preferences -- representing most of the remaining 80 percent. With changes to the constitution requiring support of two-thirds of the next parliament, aren't Sunnis' chances of pushing through revisions darn slim?"

University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole blogs about a bunch of interesting stories today, including a Reuters report that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a popular Shiite cleric, has urged Iraqis to vote Yes on the constitution. Sistani's support (if not his official endorsement) comes on top of the reasonably successful efforts to bring the Sunnis around. Still, Cole says, "I figure that the Sunni Arabs have at least some chance of carrying Anbar, Salah al-Din and Ninevah for a "no" vote, and some keen Iraqi observers appear to be afraid of this, as well."

Cole also notes news that parliament met to 'hear' some constitutional amendments -- but not actually vote on them. "I just scratch my head at 'amendments' to the 'constitution' that are 'adopted' but never voted on by parliament," Cole writes. "Things are being done by powerful party leaders dickering with one another in closed rooms thick with cigarette smoke, and then just announced. No vote is necessary. It has all been taken care of already. Iraq has gone from being a dictatorship to being an oligarchy."

The Today in Iraq blog is skeptical of the methods used to persuade the Sunnis. "So: A backroom deal was reached by the US ambassador and the local equivalents of ward bosses that changed the draft constitution in a process completely outside the agreed framework for how the document would be created. What is the great breakthrough change? Apparently it is a mechanism for amending the constitution."

Today in Iraq blogger Matt also raises the question of how many Sunnis are going to hear about this compromise in time with just a few days left until the vote. If they are inundated with news about the change and vote yes as a consequence, they'll figure out pretty soon after the constitution is approved that they were "suckered."

The Boston Globe calls the deal a "desperate but necessary attempt to compensate for a succession of avoidable blunders."

David Adesnik of Oxblog thinks this Sunni support deal is a huge success for American diplomacy -- and if it flips Sunni opinion to pro-constitution across the country, that would indeed be an impressive feat. But we won't know until after the votes are counted in each region.

(Speaking of the Sunni vote, USA Today reports that Saddam Hussein "is allowed to vote but probably won't because he doesn't recognize the legitimacy of political developments since the U.S.-led invasion.")

Plenty more to discuss on this huge subject, but we'll leave it here for now. Debaters, what do you think of the Sunni compromise? Where is Iraq headed from here?

By Emily Messner |  October 13, 2005; 9:37 AM ET  | Category:  This Week's Issue
Previous: The Facts: The Iraq Constitution | Next: One Iraqi's View of the Constitution


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Iraq should be split up for the sake of peace.

Take a close look at the first statement in the US Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The different groups in Iraq need to be separated and go their own separate way for the sake of peace and mutual security. It will be a long time before the Sunnies get along with the other groups and forcing them to act as one reeks of idealism and not enough common sense. The Kurds pretty much already run their own show anyway, why not extend the same freedom to everyone? Then instead of training more troops and military, we can be peacekeepers instead and everyone can guard and negociate in their own true interests.

Posted by: Art | October 13, 2005 11:49 AM

Good thoughts, Art, if only it could be done. You are right that there is no political cohesiveness among the three disperate politico-cultural groups in Iraq and that they'd be more stable alone, but the geopolitical reality makes this an impossibility.

If the Shi'i in the south become independent they take with them a major source of oil as well as Iraq's only port, Basra. Anyone up the river valley would be forced to appease them in order to have access to the Gulf and its valuable shipping lanes.

The Kurds, of course, would then be at a huge disadvantage. Sure they have vast amounts of oil in the north, but they would have no way to export it, except through the oil-rich territory of the Shi'i and you can be sure that they will be in no mood to let a competitor into the market easily.

Alternately, the Kurds could export their oil through one of their other neighbors, via pipeline. The only problem is since 1914 they have been calling for a state of Kurdistan that would include the huge Kurd populations of their neighbors, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. None of those countries would be dying to see a successful Kurdish state that their own minority populations would be inclined to join.

Finally, there will be the Sunni in the middle with nothing. No sea access, no oil, no resources. Gulf War III will start when they inevitably try to expand, probably to the South, to acquire resources.

So basically, partitioning Iraq into three more rational states would inevitably lead to at least two failed states, which wouldn't get us anywhere. The great tragedy is "nowhere" is where we're headed right now. There's a reason jsut about everyone who really knew about the middle east said we didn't want to get involved over there.

Posted by: Alim al-Iraq | October 13, 2005 01:52 PM

I think it's great Iraqis are voting. Mission accomplished, President Bush!

Posted by: Roberto Gómez | October 13, 2005 09:44 PM

Why in the world does the U.S. government and "intelligentsia" get to decide this question? It's so insulting to the Iraqi people that outsiders spend so much time and energy pondering how best they should be running their country.

It's also such a farce, as the current U.S. administration is simply trying to manufacture into the most favorable (and stable) situation for our interests.

There is nothing I can do except decry our actions, and feel deeply, deeply ashamed.

Posted by: angry girl | October 13, 2005 10:16 PM

The Sunni compromise is great news! Just the fact that there is dialogue is a great thing in an area of the world where politics has always been dictated by the gun.

We know the backgrounds of the Sunni's, Shiites and Kurds. And our _expectations_ should be that this will be a messy political process. But even our own political process is messy, so this is not to say they shouldn't try.

The EU has had many rough spots (even France rejected the constitution). The US's original Articles of Confederation got scrapped. But the US was able to ultimately get it right even with a very diverse group of people.

And if it happens to work-- a free democratic Iraq which could be a beacon for the entire region- a fantastic catalyst for change.

Posted by: toshiro | October 14, 2005 01:33 AM

Great post Alim-al Iraq, you shed a lot of light on the challenges each of the three ethnic groups have. Splitting the country into 3 parts would have terrible results given that they are all fighting for the same economic resources.

I think the historical solution to this (I cringe) is an exodus/disbursion to somewhere where the political climate is more favorable for Sunnis. There can't be a society where people are blowing themselves up for reasons that can be argued rightly in every way.

Heck.. aren't we giving $200k of government services to everyone in New Orleans for the same sort of thing? The location is no longer fit to live - everyone out. I digress of course...

Posted by: Art | October 14, 2005 11:20 AM

I think you guys are jumping ahead. Messner was talking about the current Iraqi constitution and Sunni participation thereof. One step at a time guys.

Posted by: toshiro | October 15, 2005 11:28 AM

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