Iraq Votes on a Malleable Constitution

Report Middle East

Iraq Votes on a Malleable Constitution

October 14, 2005 4 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Iraqis go to the polls on October 15 to vote in a national referendum on a proposed constitution, which was modified in a last-minute agreement aimed at boosting Sunni Arab support for approval. The U.S.-brokered agreement is designed to help defuse the opposition of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority to the draft constitution written primarily by the Shiite Arab and Kurdish political parties that dominate Iraq's transitional parliament. The new accord makes clear that the constitution is not written in stone but in slow-drying cement that Iraq's next parliament can modify. This may encourage Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the ongoing insurgency, to accept the constitution, participate in the upcoming elections for a new parliament, assume a greater role in Iraq's next government, and reject the siren song of insurgent groups who can offer them little but unending violence.


If the constitution is approved as expected in Saturday's vote, the way will be cleared for national elections on December 15 for a new parliament. (If the constitution is voted down, the new parliament will write a new constitution that would be put before voters in another referendum.) Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are underrepresented in the transitional parliament, with only 17 of 275 seats, because many of them boycotted the January 2005 elections or were deterred from voting by the insurgents' threats of violence.


To attract greater Sunni support, the draft constitution was modified in four areas:


  1. The key change is a provision for a commission in the next parliament that could propose revisions to the constitution. The commission's proposals would be subject to a vote of the full parliament and then approval in another national referendum. This would assure Sunnis greater influence over the final text if they fully participate in the coming elections.
  2. Inserted into the first article of the constitution is the statement, "This constitution is a guarantee for the unity of Iraq." This addition is meant to address concerns over the federalist system defined in the document, which many Sunnis believe goes too far in devolving government authority to autonomous regions, a possible prelude to the dissolution of Iraq. The Sunni criticism of federalism also is based on a lightly-veiled fear that Shiites and Kurds will carve out autonomous regions and gain control of Iraq's immense oil resources, the bulk of which are distributed in the predominantly Kurdish north and the predominantly Shiite south.
  3. Two clauses were added to clarify that former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party can be prosecuted for crimes, but not merely for party membership, and to give a parliamentary committee the power to supervise "de-Baathification" to "ensure justice, objectivity, and transparency." These additions are designed to assure anxious Sunnis, who dominated the Baath Party, that de-Baathification does not become a smokescreen to exclude them from power.
  4. A new clause requires federal and official organizations in Kurdistan to consider Arabic, alongside the Kurdish language, as an official language. This is meant to assure Sunni Arabs that they will not become second-class citizens in a country that they have long dominated.

Although the agreement on these four changes is a welcome step forward if it leads to greater national unity, it is unclear if the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni political organization that negotiated the deal, can deliver greater Sunni support for the compromise. Rival Sunni groups, such as the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, continue to call for Sunnis to vote against the constitution. Today the Iraqi Islamic Party's headquarters building was bombed by insurgents who seek to maintain their grip on Sunni politics through a reign of terror.


Despite these signs of continued discord among Sunni groups, the constitution is likely to be approved in Saturday's vote. Shiites, who make up at least 60 percent of the population, strongly support the document. Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of the population, are also expected to vote to approve it, although many Kurds have reservations about losing the extensive autonomy that they now enjoy. Given the expected majority vote to approve the constitution at the national level, two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's eighteen provinces would have to vote against it to block approval. Sunnis form the majority of voters in four provinces, but those most likely to oppose the constitution are also most likely to boycott the referendum.


A successful vote is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the intensity of insurgent violence. Regardless of the outcome, insurgents are likely to escalate their attacks in the run-up to the December 15 elections. And Baathist diehards and Islamic radicals will continue to fight on, even if many Sunnis opt to join a new government, because they seek to impose their own brand of dictatorship on Iraqis. Nonetheless, the approval of the constitution and the participation of more Sunnis in the next government would have a positive long-term effect in draining away support for the insurgency.


Ultimately, the referendum alone will not make or break Iraq. The real test is whether a sustainable national consensus can be created to effectively share power and enforce the constitution. As two constitutional scholars recently concluded, "It will work if Iraqis are determined to make it work."[1] A successful vote on the constitution would encourage Sunnis to join the political process and thus help unite Iraqis and weaken long-term support for the insurgency. Approval of the constitution would signal that Iraqis have passed another important milestone on the difficult road to establishing a stable democracy.


James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey, "The New Iraqi Constitution," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1879, September 16, 2005, at


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation