Approval of new constitution still leaves massive political uncertainties in Iraq

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Ramadan 28, 1426 2005-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 9, Ramadan, 1426)

October 15 was a historic day for Iraqis. Up to 10 million Iraqis may have gone to the polls to cast their votes in the first genuine constitutional referendum in their country's history. But, like every other critical decision-point in the political processes of post-Saddam Iraq, instead of fostering unity the constitutional vote is going to rend the social fabric of a country that is already split along sectarian and ethnic lines. It is a compelling sign of these widening gulfs among Iraqis that the official results had still not been announced more than a week after the vote. But there are many indications that the constitutional charter is likely to pass despite significant opposition from Sunni Arabs. In a speech he delivered in the shrine-city of Najaf on October 20, Hussein al-Shahrestani, deputy speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly, claimed that the referendum's initial results suggest that the voters have approved the draft constitution. But the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) has declined to comment on Shahrestani's statements, pointing out that the count is still under way.

The vote against the draft constitution was boosted by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which turned out in large numbers to vote. This helped to raise the turnout to 63 percent of registered voters, slightly above the 60 percent turnout for the legislative election in January, which was boycotted by most Sunni Arabs. Few Sunni Arabs were kept away from the polls this time round by fighting or fear of reprisals in some restive areas to the west and north of Baghdad. In Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq, insurgents distributed fliers portraying voters as donkeys hoodwinked by Uncle Sam. A statement signed by Ansar Allah Brigades, a little-known group, warned Muslims in Iraq against voting for the draft constitution. The statement read: “Ansar Allah Brigades announces that it will monitor all the polling stations forced upon Muslims … Anyone who votes 'Yes' will be a target of our sharp swords of truth.”

It is true that the large Sunni Arab turnout is in sharp contrast to the parliamentary election on January 30. But rather than signaling any easing of inter-communal tensions, Sunni Arab participation is a sign of another escalation in sectarian and ethnic discord. The Sunni vote was only possible because the US made a deal that included stipulations for the text to be amended next year by a new National Assembly to be elected on December 15. If this election takes place it will be the third time this year that Iraqis take part in a national vote.

In contrast to the election on January 30, when voters turned out in force in predominantly Shi'ite and Kurdish areas in the northern and southern parts of the country, voter apathy was observed this time in these very same areas. Creeping voter apathy among Shi'ite Arabs is significant because it occurs despite the fact that Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the most prominent Shi'ite religious authority in Najaf, had called on Iraqis to vote in favour of the draft constitution. Some voters might have stayed away from the polls because they were confident of the draft being passed with a large margin anyway. Disillusionment with the political process, which has so far failed to provide Iraqis with security, jobs or better services, may well have played a part in depressing the turnout in these areas.

The conditions of daily life prevailing in Iraq some 30 months after Saddam was toppled make it easy to understand why people might be so disillusioned as to abstain from voting. Electric power and water systems are in disarray; educational and healthcare services are in a shambles; unemployment has soared; violent crime (such as murders, armed robbery, kidnappings, suicide bombings and sectarian-motivated killings) has skyrocketed; Iraqis have to wait for hours or days in miles-long queues to fill their cars, in a country that has the world's fourth-largest oil-reserves. To add insult to injury, the higher echelons of government are infested with carpetbaggers feeding voraciously at the public trough. Many supporters of young Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr have also voted against the draft constitution. Sadr had said earlier that this draft constitution would not ensure security or decent life for Iraqis. He urged supporters to consult their marji'i al-taqlid (religious community leader) about the constitution and about which way to vote if they do vote.

In a rerun of the tough measures taken during the legislative elections in January, security was tight during the referendum, with a countrywide night-time curfew, a ban on weapons in public (even licensed weapons), and a ban on traffic between provinces. International borders, airports and ports were also closed. An eerie calm settled over most of Iraq as tens of thousands of Iraqi police and army troops, assisted by coalition troops, fanned out across cities and towns to protect polling stations.

The referendum has driven another nail in the coffin of Iraq's unity, with leaders of the Shi'ite majority and Kurdish minority supporting the constitution and Sunni Arabs opposing it. Large Sunni Arab participation would not have been possible without the introduction of a host of last-minute amendments. Some amendments were serious and stemmed from the soul-searching that followed the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime. One addition to Article 1 reads: “This constitution guarantees the unity of Iraq.” An amendment to Article 3 points out thatIraq “is an effective founding member of the Arab League, committed to its charter, and part of the Islamic world.” Article 4 was amended to include a provision stating that: “The federal and official institutions in the Kurdistan Region shall use both languages; Arabic and Kurdish”. On the controversial issue of “deba'athification”, two points were added to Article 131. The first point reads: “Mere membership in the dissolved Ba'ath Party is not considered sufficient ground for referring one to courts. The said member enjoys the protection and equity of the law, unless his case is subject to Deba'athification rules and regulations.” The second addition reads: “The National Assembly will form a parliamentary committee to monitor and review the practised measures of the Higher Deba'athification Commission and governmental bodies to guarantee fairness, objectivity, and transparency, and to assess the conformity of those measures to the laws. The decisions of the committee are subject to the approval of the National Assembly.”

However, other amendments betray an obsession with trivia. An addition to Article 35 reads: “The country shall patronize cultural activities and institutions in a way that befits the cultural history of Iraq. The country shall also be eager to adopt genuine Iraqi cultural approaches.” Similarly, an addition to Article 36 reads: “Every Iraqi individual is entitled to practise sports. The country shall encourage and patronize sports activities and meet their requirements.” Such trivial suggest that the drafts's writers were trying to please many; the danger is that they may have failed to please any.

In addition, the US-brokered backroom compromise defers decisions on a number of important issues to the next legislature. The number of judges sitting on the Supreme Court and their method of selection is to be determined by a resolution of the National Assembly. The elected legislature will establish a second legislative chamber and appoint a new committee to recommend further amendments. These amendments will require a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly before they are put to all Iraqis in a national referendum next summer. Because Sunni Arabs are expected to show up in large numbers at the polls in the impending legislative election, which will allocate seats to electoral districts by population, there will certainly be greater Sunni representation in the new full-term National Assembly. This will make parliamentary debates, bargaining and wrangling even more heated.

The compromise led to a crack in what had been virtually universal Sunni Arab opposition to the charter: it occasioned a change of heart on the part of Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIS), and the powerful Sunni Waqf Department, who reversed their opposition to the constitution and endorsed the draft. Violent reprisals followed swiftly. In Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Adhamiyah neighbourhood hundreds of protesters marched toward the Abu Hanifah Mosque on Friday, October14, carrying banners proclaiming “No to the Constitution” and chanting slogans describing IIS chief Muhsin Abd al-Hamid as a “traitor”. Before dawn unknown attackers had thrown a grenade at pro-IIS Shaykh Mu'ayyad al-Adhami, the imam of the Abu Hanifah Mosque. In Falluja, where about 100 IIS members reportedly resigned from the party's organizations in opposition to its endorsement of the charter, angry protesters marched on the IIS's main offices in the city after the Friday prayer and torched the building. A bomb attack also targeted an IIS office in central Baghdad.

Despite the deal, most Sunni Arab factions still stepped up their campaign to defeat the measure at the polls. They complain that provisions for federalism in the draft constitution raise the spectre of a partitioned Iraq; that the country would be divided into semi-autonomous states, with Shi'ite Arabs in the south and Kurds in the north controlling the country's main oilfields. The Sunni Arab minority, which accounts for about 20 percent of the population in Iraq, had dominated the country under Saddam Hussein and currently forms the backbone of the resistance to the occupation.

The draft constitution can be defeated if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it. Sunni Arabs have a large enough population in four provinces (al-Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninaweh and Diyala) to have a chance of getting the required two-thirds “no” vote. But Ninaweh and Diyala have a significant Shi'ite or Kurdish presence, strongly motivated to vote in favour of the draft constitution. Partial results from 13 provinces, released by the IECI on October 22, indicate that “yes” votes comprised 90 percent of the votes cast in seven predominantly Shi'ite provinces in the south, while “yes” votes in Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, two predominantly Kurdish provinces in the north, stood at nearly 99 percent. The delay in announcing the final results is being caused by charges of fraud made by Sunni Arab leaders after reports of statistically anomalous proportions of “yes” votes in some areas. The charges have prompted the IECI to order an audit of votes in some provinces.

As for the predominantly Sunni Arab provinces, the partial results announced by the IECI show that the province of Salah al-Din, which includes Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, had surpassed the required two-thirds rejection at 81.5 percent, while unofficial reports were that a two-thirds rejection was also reached in al-Anbar. With scepticism surrounding the rumours of a two-thirds majority “no” vote in Diyala, opponents of the constitution pinned their hopes on Nineveh province, around Mosul in the north, to spring a last-minute surprise.

The US has bargained hard to bridge the yawning chasm between Sunni Arabs on one side and Shi'ite Arabs and Kurds on the other. In some ways, strengthening the political process serves an American interest. Securing a constitution on a tight schedule would enable Washington to extract its troops from the increasingly costly demonstration of their ineffectiveness and incompetence. In a recorded address full of typically surreal rhetoric, US president George W Bush congratulated Iraqis on the referendum. He hailed the vote as a “critical step forward in Iraq's march toward democracy,” adding that “America will not run” as it did from other places, such as Vietnam and Somalia. Washington hopes the constitution will pave the way for a more representative Iraqi government, which would tame the insurgency and enable more than 150,000 US soldiers to begin to withdraw. The problem is that if the constitution is passed it will provoke more anger among the Sunni Arabs, who would grow even more bitter and resentful at being ruled by a constitution they oppose, thus driving more of them to support the insurgency.

The draft constitution has little prospect of becoming a national contract that guarantees social peace and harmony. The last-minute compromises ensure that more hard bargaining lies ahead, particularly on key issues such as the powers of federal regions, as well as the distribution of national wealth and natural resources such as oil. Because of the escalating disputes around the constitutional charter and other issues involved in designing the political and institutional structure of the post-Saddam state of Iraq, inter-communal divisions will inevitably be exacerbated. Once again the political process will fail in its effort to produce an accord among Iraqis about the country's future. This process will continue to be an arena of conflict for intransigent Iraqi politicians of every stripe who pursue blinkered and narrow political agendas that are at odds with the unity of Iraq.

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