Global Policy Forum

Behind Constitution Talks,


By Alastair Macdonald

August 18, 2005

Though talks have focused on wrangling among three main groups, majority Shia Muslims, ethnic Kurds and the Sunni Arab minority that dominated Iraq before the US invasion, there are divisions within those camps, some potentially violent, and it is unclear how far negotiators represent voters.

Washington's envoy in Baghdad says Iraqi negotiators need just a few more days to "fine-tune the language" that will clinch a deal on a draft constitution. Beyond the grandstand finish that the United States hopes will produce agreement, however, lie difficulties aplenty for Iraqis and for the American project in Iraq.

Predicting whether disputes that withstood US pressure to meet a Monday midnight deadline can be resolved by Aug 22 is not easy; nor is forecasting what might happen if they are not. "There are so many aspects to this. I wouldn't trust what anyone says publicly," said Ghassan al-Atiyah of Baghdad think tank the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy. Scenarios ranged, he said, from a deal already having been struck and the one-week extension being a "smokescreen" to enhance the impression that Iraqis had reached it independently of US pressure, to the possibility the entire process will break down and have to resume from scratch with new elections.

Though talks have focused on wrangling among three main groups, majority Shia Muslims, ethnic Kurds and the Sunni Arab minority that dominated Iraq before the US invasion, there are divisions within those camps, some potentially violent, and it is unclear how far negotiators represent voters. Even if a constitution is forthcoming which can be voted on in a planned October referendum, securing its popular acceptance and putting it into practice are not foregone conclusions in the poisonous atmosphere of sectarian and ethnic division that the talks on the draft charter have highlighted.

"The timetable has been extremely theatrically staged from Washington and has very little to do with Baghdad," said Toby Dodge of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. It was a view echoed in several Iraqi newspapers on Tuesday; the best-selling Azzaman's front-page headline was "Energy Crisis Steals Limelight from Constitutional Crisis".

Crucial differences:

Though limited in terms of the space they occupy in the draft text, the bones of contention are huge, concerning nothing less than control of Iraq's vast potential oil wealth by rival groups and the survival of the nation itself as a viable state. The Shia Islamist-led interim government elected in January faces not just armed revolt by tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs and vocal demands for territory from the already virtually independent Kurds but also mounting criticism from rival groups in its own Shia heartlands, some of them armed. Opponents accuse it of tolerating corruption and sectarian oppression and of failing to tackle the poverty of most Iraqis. "I don't think that progress on the constitution will have one iota of impact, and even if they come up with a compromise agreement, implementing it is another story," Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.

One driving consideration for those negotiating the text in Baghdad's Green Zone government compound may be that a further failure after the week-long extension granted by the interim parliament could fuel further uncertainty and instability. US President George W. Bush has made it clear he sets great store by a timetable for a fully-fledged Iraqi state set down in an interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law, drawn up under US supervision last year.

US pressure:

Under pressure in opinion polls at home over his handling of an occupation that is costing dozens of American lives a month, Bush is clearly anxious to show progress toward his stated goal of a popularly-backed Iraqi government that can defend itself against rebellion and let US troops start going home. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, ubiquitous around the negotiations, has made clear "failure is not an option".

Joost Hilterman from the International Crisis Group think tank, who urged in a report earlier this year for Iraqis to be given more time to discuss and draw up a constitution, said that now the timetable was set further delay would be unhelpful. "Having gone this route, it should be completed," he said. "It's not our preferred route. But not to do so could be extremely damaging. Expectations have been raised."

Under the TAL, a failure to produce a constitution on time would provoke the dissolution of the present interim National Assembly and the election of another by December to begin the drafting process over again. But having granted one extension, it seems possible parliament could push the deadline back again. Given US preferences, going back to square one seems unlikely. The present parliament, dominated by Shias and Kurds following Sunnis' failure to vote in January, also seems disinclined to bring forward a crisis. Muddling through according to the US-backed schedule seems the most likely outcome for Iraqi politics to end the year.

Atiyah said, however, that he would not rule out deadlock leading to a complete rethink. And Dodge in London raised the prospect that, even if the mostly unelected Sunni negotiators agreed to a deal, Sunni voters could scupper it in October. If a majority of voters in three of Iraq's provinces reject the charter, it would be vetoed - "That could be a watershed moment for the US to reassess the whole project," Dodge said.

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