August 24, 2005

August 24, 2005 | Commentary on Middle East

Iraq's race against the clock

Iraq's constitutional convention has stopped the clock for three days, giving itself a new deadline of Thursday for approval of the draft constitution finished minutes before mid-night Baghdad time on Monday. The hope is that this old-fashioned bureaucratic maneuver will buy time to persuade Iraq's Sunni leaders to back the document. How that is going to happen is hard to see, and without the acceptance of Iraq's sizable Sunni minority, which has enough voting power to block ratification in October, the constitutional process will be in deep trouble; lack of cooperation among the three ethnic and religious groups if Iraq will certainly sow the seeds of future instability.

Now, there have been several hotly disputed issues. The most widely covered here in the United States has been the question of how far Islamic law should be allowed to influence the new constitution. With the cautionary example of Iran next door, there is plenty of reason for concern. Sharia law governs particularly family law in numerous Muslim countries, even Turkey, and is in many respects discriminatory against women. Is this something the United States should be endorsing, many have asked? In an ideal world, the answer would be No. Yet, on the other hand, there is no way to get around the fact that Iraq is a Muslim country, and will remain so. As the Bush administration has repeatedly stated, we should not be trying to produce a clone of the United States. The compromise solution is an acknowledgement that Islam is "a major source" of the legal framework of the constitution, as opposed to be "the major source." It may be the best we can get.

If Iraq's fragile constitutional edifice crumbles under the weight of disagreements, it will cause severe loss of face here in Washington. The Bush administration has staked everything in Iraq on the progress of a political settlement, which eventually will allow our troops to come home. Support for the war has declined to less than 50 percent among Americans, and a victory on the Iraqi Constitution would be most welcome for the White House from a public diplomacy standpoint. And yet, we have to be prepared to face the possibility of a failing constitutional process and to regroup for the long haul. It is more important to leave behind a viable edifice than it is to meet an artificial deadline. (Just ask the framers of the ill-fated European Constitution.)

More problematic in the long term is that Iraq's Sunni population, which represents 20 percent of a population of 26 million, has been the biggest loser in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They were his powerbase, and led privileged lives, whereas both Iraq's Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south suffered grievous oppression. Smarting from their loss of power, Sunnis refused foolishly to participate in January's elections for the Constitutional convention, with the predictable result that their interests have been underrepresented. Since then, the Sunni triangle in the center of the country has been the battle ground for the persistent terrorist attacks that the United States, the new Iraqi Army and police and our allies have been fighting to contain.

Our essential strategy has to be to convince the Sunni leadership that they can only win at the negotiating table - not by violence. That means not letting up on the insurgents, reminding the Sunnis that they are bargaining from a position of weakness. It will take time for them to accept, but they are. It also means, however, listening to their concerns. Sunnis are objecting to the federal structure outlined in the constitution, which is actually the only one that would improve regional stability with the greatest measure of local autonomy. The Kurds initially demanded the right to secede, but within such a structure, secession should not be a necessary course of action.

The question of federalism, however, masks economic issues. Iraq's oil production is still lagging due to sabotage and lack of investment during the Saddam years, yet its oil wealth is among the largest in the world. Before the war, Iraq's oil sector provided more than 60 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Sunnis who inhabit the less oil rich areas stand to lose significantly unless they are offered a realistic revenue sharing scheme.

While Kurds and Shiites have the majority to ram through anything they want in the Constitutional Convention, Sunnis have enough share of the population to block ratification by voting it down on Oct. 15 in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. It will probably by a bumpy ride ahead.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East