Iraqis extend deadline for new constitution

By Robert Fisk

The Independent

Published: 16 August 2005

As usual in Iraq, a grotesque political failure was being dressed up as a semi-victory last night by an Iraqi government that controls little more than a few square miles of Baghdad. For inside the infamous Green Zone - the castellated, concrete-barricaded pseudo-castle in which most of Iraq's principal politicians are now forced to live - the almost equally infamous constitution, which was supposed to have completed its drafting yesterday, appeared to be falling to pieces.

Infamous, of course, to the Sunnis who are appalled that the country's Shia Muslim and Kurdish representatives want their own federal states included in the nation and - more to the point - in the constitution, which was supposed to be going before the Iraqi parliament last night. President Bush said the deadline would be met. Mr Blair said the deadline would be met. So did Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the elected Iraqi prime minister.

But last night, Mr Jaafari's officials were talking of a second interim constitution that would allow delegates from the constitutional committees to have at least another two weeks to decide if they would allow virtual independence to the Shia south and centre of Iraq and the Kurdish north - oil-rich areas, unlike the Sunni central provinces.

If all this seems a clever piece of political artwork, it is also probably illegal. Under the first interim constitution, the Jaafari government was supposed to resign if the constitutional deadline was not met and dissolve the parliament. Elections - like those of 30 January - would then have to be held all over again and parliament would then have to take yet another turn at grinding out a constitution.

The reality, of course, is that while Western governments have been watching the process of constitution writing with academic interest, most Iraqis have been regarding the whole thing as a distraction from the daily grind of killings, robbery, energy shortages and corruption. The world of political structures and "democracy" here are thus separated from the world of political action and armed insurgency by walls - real and symbolic - and the West largely, and through a process of imagination, lives within those same walls. Iraq exists outside.

The Americans are perhaps most fearful of the results of any federal constitution. If Kurdistan declares itself a virtual state - which, in reality, it already is - then Turkey is likely to deploy troops along itsborder with Iraq to make sure that Kurdish "statehood" never materialises.

And if the Shias have their federal state in the south, President Bush will have to explain why Iran has so big a hand in influencing the wealthiest of Iraq's oil regions. Those in the know said that large amounts of dollars may soon have to be used to ensure a federal-free constitution. But for that, the committees in the Green Zone will need several more weeks to work out the price.