Iraqi ‘No’ may not be such a bad thing

By Roula Khalaf

Financial Times

Published: 8 October 2005

The world will be treated next week to televised images of brave Iraqis defying insurgents’ threats to flock to polling stations to vote on the postwar draft constitution. The moment will be celebrated in Washington as another victory for “freedom” and a vindication of the Iraq war. It may even be watched with envy in parts of the Arab world.

From Baghdad to Washington and London, officials are eager to see a Yes vote that would pave the way for parliamentary elections in December and complete Iraq’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy.

A victory is indeed most likely: the Sunni Arab minority, the only main national group opposed to the constitution, will not easily muster the two-thirds majority needed in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces to defeat the draft.

But so determined are Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish politicians to take no chances that they passed a ruling in the national assembly that they dominate to favour the Yes vote. They were caught by United Nations monitors and forced to reverse course.

A permanent constitution, enshrining democratic principles, is obviously good progress for Iraq (even if it may not be applied in word or spirit). Yet a defeat at the October 15 polls is not necessarily a bad outcome. In fact, it would probably do more to heal the country’s sectarian wounds. Iraqi officials tell me that rejection of the constitution would be a dangerous setback, throwing the political process off balance and deepening the chaos. Iraq, they argue, desperately needs a stable government with a longer lifespan. Only after elections in December will a cabinet finally get down to the business of governing. Their western backers concur. As a senior British official quipped this week: “We’ve run out of words for transitional.”

These are real concerns. But given Iraq’s grim realities, the value of political progress such as a constitution lies above all in its ability to bridge the widening sectarian divide and prevent descent into civil war. Two years after the fall of the Ba’athist regime, Iraq is tearing itself apart, with growing political confrontation between the Sunni Arabs on one hand and the majority Shia and minority Kurds on the other. Sadly the new constitution risks feeding those tensions, rather than reducing them.

This week’s attempted stitch-up of the vote, followed by a victory for the Yes camp, would intensify the resentment of a Sunni community that has been gradually marginalised in postwar Iraq. This could bolster the Ba’athist and radical Islamist insurgency. “Despite many impressive characteristics, it [the constitution] risks doing the unthinkable,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution. It would exacerbate the bitterness of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and thereby increase support for violence “among the 20 per cent of Iraq’s population most responsible for the ongoing insurgency,” he said.

The draft constitution has serious flaws. The detailed mechanisms for the establishment of federal regions look ominously like a plan for breaking up the country. A federal system may well be the best long-term solution for Iraq, even if the Sunni Arabs are not keen on it. But the Shia parties’ insistence on pressing such a divisive issue at this time has been treated as an affront by the Sunni community.

Prodded by US mediators, Shia leaders have apparently agreed in recent weeks to give the next parliament a say in the structure of federalism outlined in the constitution. But this promise has done nothing to placate Sunni anger. What worries the Sunni Arabs, and for good reason, is the impact of federalism on the country’s oil wealth, concentrated in the largely Kurdish north and the Shia south. The constitution relies on vague language about oil, suggesting that  revenues from old wells – but not necessarily new ones – should be distributed fairly around the country.

To their credit, US officials understood that the drafting of the constitution presented a unique opportunity for a national reconciliation. They pressed the parliament – in which few Sunni are represented because they had boycotted the January elections – to add community leaders to the constitution drafting committee. And they favoured an outcome that left the most difficult issues unresolved.

But the constitutional debate showed the limit of American leverage in Iraq today. It also highlighted the determination of the Shia majority, brutally oppressed by the Saddam Hussein regime, to claim as many gains as possible.

One positive development is that Sunni leaders have realised the futility of their January boycott and have tried to organise and mobilise voters against the referendum. Now, several small movements and parties are joining together to form one political party. A victory for the Yes vote will discourage them, but hopefully not to the point of giving up on politics. Whether their voices could then rise above those of the insurgents who are telling the Sunni community that bullets are more effective than ballots is less certain.

The writer is the FT’s Middle East editor