Iraq's Unsettling Constitution

Editorial

New York Times

August 23, 2005

The draft constitution given to Iraq's national assembly last night does little to advance the prospects for a unified and peaceful Iraq. Nor does it reflect well on the Bush administration, which let its politically motivated obsession with an arbitrary deadline trump its responsibility to promote inclusiveness, women's rights and the rule of law.

The assembly's leadership sensibly decided to give itself a few more days to try to modify some of the badly flawed draft's more contentious provisions on federalism. Unfortunately that appeared to leave little room for the substantial changes needed in other divisive provisions, like the enshrinement of Islamic law and the threats to women's family and property rights.

The draft got to the assembly ahead of this latest deadline, a week later than Washington wanted, only by sidelining until almost the last moment the Sunni Arabs who had so painstakingly been added to the drafting group earlier this year. Since the Bush administration has promoted the constitution as a way to drain support from Sunni insurgents, this exclusionary move was reckless and indefensible.

The Sunnis overwhelmingly favor a strong central government. With them out of the negotiations, the theocratically inclined Shiites and the separatist-minded Kurds found it easy to cut a deal that favored their narrow interests at national expense. The draft would reportedly allow the Kurds to reinforce their autonomy under a weak federal government. The religious Shiites pushed to enshrine Islam in the constitution and the legal system, all the way up through the Supreme Court.

Months ago, the United States was assuring skeptics that the secular Kurds would rein in the Shiite religious parties, while the majority Shiites would limit Kurdish separatism. But instead of being counterweights, these two groups seem mainly to have reinforced each other. Washington, desperate for any draft, encouraged their complicity.

Clinching a deal became easier when the most fundamentalist and most pro-Iranian of the Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, decided that it, too, favored regional autonomy for the oil-rich Shiite southern provinces around Basra. Fortunately, the constitution is said to provide that oil revenues from already discovered fields be distributed nationwide according to population, rather than directly to the new regional governments. To do otherwise would leave the oil-poor Sunni provinces virtually penniless. Still, the prospect of carving up Iraq into loosely linked federal units is likely to intensify Sunni disenchantment with the new constitution and government, a prospect that can only encourage the insurgency.

Approval by a simple majority of the parliament will be only a first step. The draft constitution will then be subject to a national referendum in October. Excluding the Sunnis from that decision won't be so easy. If at least two-thirds of the voters in three of the four Sunni-majority provinces reject the draft, it will not go into effect. Opposition in other provinces is also possible. Shiites in the central provinces near Baghdad, which also lack oil, are wary of federalism. Large numbers of women may turn out in defense of their threatened rights. Secular Iraqis from all regions could choke on the provisions reportedly declaring Iraq an Islamic state and prohibiting any legislation that conflicts with the fixed principles of Islam.

Americans continue dying in Iraq, but their mission creeps steadily downward. The nonexistent weapons of mass destruction dropped out of the picture long ago. Now the United States seems ready to walk away from its fine words about helping the Iraqis create a beacon of freedom, harmony and democracy for the Middle East. All that remains to be seen is whether the White House has become so desperate for an excuse to declare victory that it will settle for an Iranian-style Shiite theocracy.