Patrick Cockburn: The American obsession with a quick constitution is a recipe for disaster in Iraq

The friction between Shia, Sunni and Kurd is likely to be exacerbated rather than muted

The Independent

Published: 25 August 2005

At the beginning of the First World War, an Austro-Hungarian general led his army to catastrophic defeat against Serbia because he made a premature advance based on the need to mark the birthday of Emperor Franz Josef with a striking victory.

The determination of American diplomats in Baghdad over the past few days to force a draft constitution through the Iraqi national assembly at high speed is not aimed at producing a political success to coincide with the birthday of President George Bush. But it has everything to do with the desperate need of the White House, as popular support for the war in Iraq ebbs by the day across the US, to show that it is making progress. It is not Iraqi but American political priorities which are paramount.

This is turning out to be a recipe for disaster. The draft constitution submitted at the last minute on Monday night would turn Iraq into a loose federation while the basis for laws would be strongly Islamic. "There will be no central government like before," declared Humam Hamoudi, the Shia chairman of the parliamentary committee drawing up the constitution.

The constitution is the fruit of co-operation between the Kurds and Shias who dominate the national assembly. The views of the Sunni members of the constitutional committee, mostly co-opted because few Sunnis took part in the general election in January, were largely ignored.

But it is the five million-strong Sunni Arab community in Iraq which is the base of the insurgency in which almost 2,000 American soldiers have been killed over the past two years. "If this constitution passes, the streets will rise up," said Salih Mutlak, a Sunni delegate.

Ironically it was the US and Britain who had previously pressed the claims for Sunni representation on the drafting committee, much to the irritation of Kurdish and Shia leaders. But after the first deadline for a draft constitution was missed on 15 August the Sunni leaders were excluded and their views ignored. Such was the pressure from the US to produce a constitution that US embassy staff were reportedly working late into the night from a Kurdish party headquarters to translate changes in the draft from English to Arabic.

Many Iraqis will be offended by the role of the US in producing a constitution for a supposedly independent country. It mirrors too closely covert control of Iraq by Britain between 1920 and 1958. Aside from Kurdistan, where there are in any case almost no foreign troops, Sunni and Shia Iraqis alike tend to blame everything wrong in their lives on the foreign occupation.

The whoops of appreciation from Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, at what has been achieved will also be greeted with scepticism in Baghdad. Every few months since the overthrow of Saddam supposed turning points have been reached in the struggle for Iraq. First came the capture of the former leader himself in December 2003. Six months later sovereignty was transferred by the US and Britain in a furtive ceremony to an interim Iraqi government. Last January, Iraqis went to the polls and, after months of acrid negotiations, a government was finally formed.

At each of these "decisive" stages, much lauded at the time and then swiftly forgotten by the outside world, Iraqis have been told that their lives were going to get better. Instead they have become worse. For all the billions reputedly spent on reconstruction not a single crane can be seen on the Baghdad skyline. As the city bakes in summer heat electricity works for only a few hours each day to pump water or run the air-conditioning.

To hear Mr Bush and other American leaders speak, they might be supporting the creation of a constitution for a country as placid as Denmark - and not a land torn apart by war as is Iraq. This is hardly a moment for Iraqis to be interested in constitutional rules to govern their lives, when just staying alive presents such problems.

American officials had been saying that the two main blocs - the Kurds and the Shias - would force moderation on each other during negotiations on the new constitution. The Shias would compel the Kurds to limit their separatism and the secular Kurds would prevent the Shias enshrining Islam in the laws.

In practice, Shias and Kurds have each allowed the other to get what they want. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most successful Shia party in the January election, is also pushing for autonomy for the nine southern Shia provinces beneath which lie most of Iraq's oil reserves. Existing oilfields would be controlled by the central government; newly discovered fields would be exploited by the provincial authorities.

The friction between Shia, Sunni and Kurd is likely to be exacerbated rather than muted by these new arrangements. Shia leaders say that if the Sunnis object so much to the constitution then they can torpedo it if three Sunni-dominated provinces vote against it by a two-thirds majority in the referendum on 15 October. But, going by what has happened in Iraq over the past two years, the insurgents are more likely to express their dislike of the draft constitution with bomb and bullet, rather than decorously trooping to the polling stations to oppose it.

The problem about the draft constitution is that it does too little and too much. It does too little in terms of prolonged negotiations to conciliate the Sunni Arabs. It does too much in terms of institutionalising federalism and Islamic law and mores.

The successful creation of a constitution, an agreement on the rules which are to regulate the Iraqi state and society, suppose a stability which Iraq does not enjoy. The strength of the different communities will change over the next year. The Kurds and the Shias have an overwhelming majority in the national assembly because the Sunnis boycotted the last elections. This may not be true in future.

The US obsession with meeting deadlines for elections and a constitution also heralds another seismic change in who holds power. Washington is eager to declare a famous victory and reduce its troop numbers. The political cost at home is growing. It is not that the insurgents are going to storm Baghdad, but the administration is paying the price of having lied about the real situation on every occasion since it first decided to go to war in 2002. It is having difficulty sustaining the present level of casualties and would be in worse trouble if they suddenly escalated. That well might happen.

No country finds it easy to produce a constitution. To do so in such haste during a foreign occupation and a savage guerrilla war is surely impossible. To attempt to do so is likely to produce conflict rather than reduce it. The patched-together draft being considered with such unnecessary haste this week is less likely to create a framework through which Iraqis can live in peace than to provide the ingredients for a long and bloody war.