Leading article: Democracy, fear and distrust in a divided land


The Independent

Published: 16 August 2005

Whatever emerges from the haggling over the new Iraqi constitution, it is clear that considerable problems await any future government in that long-suffering country. It is one thing to agree on theoretical constitutional arrangements. But it is quite another to impose them on a nation as fractured and mired in violence as Iraq.

As far as the constitutional arrangements are concerned, it is not in the interests of the majority of Iraqis for the state to dissolve. Any attempts at secession by the Kurds, the Shia or the Sunni - the three main ethnic and religious groupings - would probably result in full-blown civil war. Iraq is not cleanly geographically divided upon ethnic lines. Substantial Shia centres, such as Baghdad's Sadr City, exist in predominantly Sunni areas. And Saddam Hussein moved large numbers of Arabs into strategically important oil-producing areas in the north throughout his years in power. Enforced division now would result in considerable bloodshed.

Yet some form of loose federal structure for Iraq is plainly unavoidable, even desirable. The Kurdish idea of naming Iraq a federal republic may have been dropped, but such is the distrust between the various ethnic and religious groups that there clearly has to be a considerable degree of regional autonomy. Such was Saddam's persecution of the Kurds and the Shia that this looser administrative structure was, in fact, inevitable from the moment the tanks began to roll on Baghdad in March 2003.

The group with most reason to fear a federal Iraq is the Sunni. Their representatives have repeatedly threatened to withdraw their co-operation from the constitution if this becomes a reality. Their fears are understandable. The predominantly Sunni provinces of Iraq are not blessed with oil. Economic federalism for them would mean an impoverished future. This is why it is vital that the fruits of Iraq's natural resources are distributed equally around the country. Without this commitment, everything else is imperilled.

The new Iraq should, of course, be a democracy. And this means majority rule and self-determination for the people of Iraq. After decades of suppression and malign outside interference there can be no other way. It is not for the United States or the Western world to determine how Iraqis should order their affairs. Yet it is manifestly not in Iraq's interest to trample on the rights of its minority groups. The leaders of the majority Shia group are pressing to impose relatively strict Islamic law in Iraq, although the nation has a secular public tradition. It is reasonable that Kurds and Iraqi women are seeking to resist this process. And it is vital that their civil rights are protected in law. The same is true of the Turkomans in northern Iraq and the Marsh Arabs in the south. Democracy is not the same thing as the tyranny of the majority. And it must not be so in Iraq.

Yet perhaps the real question is less the content of the constitution itself, but that it is enforced. The feasibility of redistributing oil revenues under a federal structure remains to be seen. And the prospects of securing women's rights in Shia heartlands, for example, remain uncertain. Much will depend on the effectiveness of the police and security forces. It is vital that these are representative of all Iraq's ethnic groupings.

Considering the present state of the country outside the Baghdad Green Zone, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about Iraq's future. The agreement of Iraq's political representatives on a new constitution will represent only a tentative first step down a perilous road.