Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Iraq: Democracy or Disintegration?

by Jim Lobe

One day after the formal presentation by a majority of Iraq's elected leaders of their proposed constitution, opinions here and in Baghdad appeared divided over whether the draft would lead to greater democracy or the virtual, if not actual, disintegration of the country.

While U.S. officials predictably put the most positive spin on the charter, which will now be submitted to the Iraqi electorate for a vote Oct. 15, other analysts warned that its provisions for regional autonomy would hasten the country's descent into a sectarian civil war that could eventually draw in neighboring states.

"I do not believe in this division between Shia and Sunni and Muslims and Christians and Arabs and Kurds," the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, told BBC Monday. "I find in this a true recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it."

Still others argued that the language regarding the special place of Islam and Islamic law in the constitution may worsen the plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians, and women, despite repeated pledges by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that women's and minority rights were among Washington's highest priorities in Iraq.

"Religious minorities as well as women will suffer under Iraq's proposed constitutional architecture," asserted Nina Shea, the director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the vice-chair of the quasi-governmental U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in an article published by the right-wing National Review online.

"We fear greatly that this and other provisions are the opening wedge for the imposition of a regime of group rights, which are anathema to secure individual rights and protections – a recipe for wider civil strife based on narrow identity politics," she and co-author Tom Cullinan wrote in reference to the constitution's replacement of civil law on personal status by religious law.

The fate of the new constitution, which was delayed by two weeks of sometimes frantic but ultimately unsuccessful U.S. efforts to get Sunni representatives to sign on, remains uncertain.

Under current law, the constitution is automatically rejected if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it on Oct. 15. That provision was originally designed by U.S. officials to reassure Kurds, which have big majorities in three northern provinces, that they could effectively veto any charter that did not provide them with significant autonomy.

As drafted, the new constitution indeed guarantees that autonomy to the Kurds and, more significantly, establishes the groundwork for offering it to as many as nine provinces in the overwhelmingly Shia south.

But that arrangement is anathema to many in the Sunni community who favor a strong central government if, for no other reason, than the Sunni heartland has few natural resources compared to the oil and gas industries based in both the north and the south.

The Sunnis, who are believed to make up about 20 percent of Iraq's total population of about 25 million, hold overwhelming majorities in two western provinces and a smaller majority in a third and thus, ironically, could conceivably single-handedly defeat the charter in the October referendum.

In addition, however, Moqtada Sadr, the young Shi'ite cleric whose Mehdi paramilitary forces have recently flexed their muscles against rival Shi'ite militias, has also indicated strong opposition to the constitution, which he has reportedly called part of an "Iranian plot" to assert control over the southern part of the country through the region's largest political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its Iranian-trained militia, the Badr Organization.

Sadr's popularity in teeming Sadr City in Baghdad, combined with the large Sunni population in the capital, could deliver Baghdad province by the requisite margin into the "no" column come Oct. 15, thus assuring the charter's rejection.

Some analysts in and out of the administration argue that the possibility of the constitution's rejection may be a blessing because it may encourage more Sunnis to participate in the political process, if only to assure the charter's defeat in the referendum.

Since the Jan. 30 elections, persuading the Sunnis to participate in the process has been a top priority for a Bush administration that, guided by its military commanders, has become increasingly persuaded that the war in Iraq has no military solution.

Indeed, the visit earlier this month to Baghdad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Thursday's telephone call by Bush to SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, were aimed above all at persuading him to compromise with the Sunni leadership.

If the constitution is defeated in the referendum, Fareed Zakaria, former Foreign Affairs managing editor and editor of Newsweek International, told ABC News' This Week Sunday, "Sunnis [will] have demonstrated that they have real power. And they'll be reincorporated. That … is the good-news scenario."

"The bad-case scenario," he went on, "they're not able to defeat it. … [Then the Sunnis] retain all the alienation, all the antipathy, and forge ahead not defeating it peacefully, but defeating it the way they're trying now, which is violently and through civil war."

Indeed, some believe that the way in which the Sunnis were marginalized in the constitution-drafting process – as well as the charter's provisions on regional autonomy and against the participation of former Ba'athist officials in government – may already have served to fuel the insurgency.

For several weeks, the Sunni leaders have argued that they only joined the drafting process – at the risk of assassination by insurgents who have opposed their participation – on the understanding that a consensus document would be the result, only to be sidelined in the last two weeks by deal-making between the Kurds and Shi'ites.

Indeed, many analysts, including administration officials, predicted that insurgent violence was likely to intensify, while one Sunni delegate, Husain al-Falluji, told reporters that the constitution was a recipe for Iraq's violent partition that would "serve American interests."

While some U.S. officials dismissed such remarks as posturing by Sunni leaders who were cowed by the insurgency and do not represent their community anyway (despite having been hand-picked by the U.S. embassy), in fact, calls for partitioning Iraq have been growing louder in Washington, notably among some neoconservatives.

In a widely-noted column in the Los Angeles Times last week, former Justice Department official John Yoo, now with the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the administration was "spending blood and treasure to preserve a country that no longer makes sense as a state."

"[T]he U.S. might get closer to its goals in the Middle East," he wrote, "if everyone would jettison the fiction of a unified, single Iraq."

August 31, 2005

*Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.



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