Make or Break for the Iraqi Constitution

Report Middle East

Make or Break for the Iraqi Constitution

August 23, 2005 2 min read

Authors: Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman

At the end of Monday's cliffhanger negotiations, Iraqi representatives set a new and final deadline of August 25, 2005, for reaching agreement on the country's new constitution. The process has unsurprisingly been contentious from the start, as long-standing differences of opinion over such important issues as federalism, Islamic (Sharia) law, women's rights, and the distribution of oil proceeds have kept the three major ethnic and religious groups-the Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds-from coming to terms. If agreement is not reached in the interim parliament, the entire constitutional edifice will come crashing down, with new elections being necessary. This is the make or break hour for Iraqi self-governance. The United States, without dictating a settlement, must galvanize Iraq's leaders to reach agreement on the most important issue - federalism.

A decentralized federal political system offers the best means of assuring local autonomy, protection against the return of a tyrannical central government, a fair share in the political settlement in Iraq, and an equitable disbursement of Iraq's oil and tax revenues. However, this scenario is threatened by Sunni intransigence over federalism. Beyond their constitutional ability to derail the final document on October 15, lack of Sunni political involvement imperils the very idea of a self-sustaining Iraqi democracy. The Sunni leadership fear federalism could tear Iraq apart; in reality, it is far more likely that their obstructionism will accomplish this.

The ushering in of Iraq's new constitution, by any measure a staggering political achievement, should not herald the end of America's commitment to the recently liberated country. The threat of more violence from Sunni insurgents and their al-Qaeda jihadist cohorts should be met with a renewed commitment by the Bush Administration to aggressive military operations to combat terrorism in Iraq. If necessary in the near term, the United States should deploy even more forces to the Sunni heartlands in order to ensure that the terrorists do not succeed in derailing the democratic process. Major campaigns may need to be launched against insurgent-held strongholds such as Haditha. A sustained effort must be made to either capture or kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda forces in the country. This tough military response must dovetail with political efforts to help the Iraqis help themselves.

The Sunnis, who make up just 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and dominated the brutal Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, should not be permitted to block the efforts of Shias and Kurds to forge ahead with a federal-based constitution. Instead it is vital that their leadership reach a consensus with the other two groups if Iraq is to become self-sustaining. The Sunnis must accept that their era of dominance is over, and they must choose whether to participate in the new Iraq or be completely marginalized from the political process.

John Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs, and Nile Gardiner Ph.D. is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow