17 August 2005
The Dog Ate My Constitution
By Gwynne Dyer
“Ahmed, where’s your homework?”
“The dog ate it, Miss. I had it all done, honest, but it was lying on the table this morning, and then the dog…”
“That’s all right, dear. Take another week and give it to me next Monday.”
The teachers in Iraq are not really so forgiving. The kids rarely have to write a whole constitution, but if they did it would be in on time: Iraqi teachers don’t accept lame excuses, and they don’t give extensions. Whereas the Iraqi parliament and its American overlords are another story entirely.
The new Iraqi constitution was due to be handed in by 15 August. Then there would be a referendum to ratify it on October 15, and new national elections to produce a somewhat more credible government for Iraq in December. Those deadline were set by the US occupation authorities, who were desperately trying to create some “turning point” after which the country would stabilise and American casualties would start to fall.
The appointment of an “interim Iraqi government” to replace direct US rule in June 2004 – the so-called “hand-over of sovereignty” – didn’t do the trick. Neither did last January’s elections (which were boycotted by the Sunni Arabs, the core of the resistance movement), nor the emergence of a more-or-less elected government in May after months of haggling. Now Washington’s hopes of a happy ending are pinned on the new constitution.
“We don’t want any delays. Now’s the time to get to get on with it,” said US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld in late July, and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the president of the current version of an Iraqi government, promised the US ambassador: “There will be no delay.” But there was.
The Kurds of northern Iraq and the Islamic religious parties who claim to represent the Shia Arabs of southern Iraq have agreed to turn the country into a federal state. That gives the Kurds control over their own area (and their own oil), and a better shot at breaking away to create their own country at some future time. Federalism also suits the Shia religious parties, since it gives them the rest of Iraq’s oil and effective freedom to impose Islamic law over most of Iraq.
The big losers were the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq, the traditional ruling group, who would end up with no oil and permanent Shia domination. So they rejected the Kurdish-Shia draft, and the 15 August deadline arrived with no agreement. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself and call new elections? No, it just gave the drafting committee one more week to agree on a new constitution. Who could blame them if the dog had eaten their homework?
President George W. Bush greeted this failure with his customary optimism: “I applaud the heroic efforts of the Iraqi negotiators…Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be resolved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise.” So another week of debate and negotiation passed, but no compromise emerged. Did the National Assembly dissolve itself on 22 July? No, of course not.
The Kurdish and Shia Arab negotiators simply handed their joint draft over to the National Assembly as the final product. True, there was no consensus on its contents, but they insisted that technically the deadline had been met – and then they gave themselves three more days to work on extracting Sunni Arab consent to the contents. President Bush hailed this as an “amazing event” and declared: “It’s a very hopeful period. The Iraqi people are working hard to reach a consensus.”
The last deadline expired on Thursday night, and of course the Sunni Arab representatives had still not budged on the issue of federalism. They would be dead men if they did, killed by their own people: “99 percent of Sunnis are unhappy (with the constitution),” explained Saleh al-Motlak, one of their chief negotiators.
It now seems likely that the National Assembly will not even be asked to vote on the new constitution (the rules only said that it had to be “presented” to the legislators), in order to avoid exposing the depth of opposition to it among Sunnis and secular Shias. The referendum will be held on 15 October as arranged, but the outcome is unpredictable, as it fails if only three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces vote against the constitution by a two-thirds majority. Washington originally wrote that rule in order to give its Kurdish allies a veto, but it gives a similar veto to the four central provinces where Sunni Arabs are the overwhelming majority of the population.
Even if the constitution is approve in the October referendum, the armed revolt among the Sunni Arabs will continue, because their concerns have essentially been ignored. By Tuesday of last week (23 August), President Bush sounded quite testy about that: “This talk about the Sunnis rising up. I mean the Sunnis have got to make a choice. Do they want to live in a society that’s free, or do they want to live in violence?”
Unfortunately for him, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq have defined their choices rather differently, and the insurgency will continue regardless of any new constitution.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The appointment…constitution”; and “It now…population”)
Note that the first sentence of paragraph 13 (“It now seems likely…”) is subject to change.