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A knitter's nightmare

Iraq's constitution must weave together a patchwork of interests and ideologies, including the Kurds'

August 14, 2005|Brendan O'Leary | Brendan O'Leary, Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is a constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan government and the co-editor of "The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq."

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION desperately needs an Iraqi constitution that will work if the U.S. is to begin reducing its military presence in Iraq. The constitution must settle the conflicts not just between Sunnis and Shiites, Islamists and secularists, but between Arabs and Kurds. That will be a very tall order.

For starters, just Iraqis are supposed to write the new constitution. But very few people are "just Iraqis."

The Kurds are neither Arabs nor Iraqis. They speak Kurdish, have a different culture, look different, do not fly Iraq's flag and insist that Iraq should not be defined in the new constitution as a member of the Arab nations.

The Kurds do not want an "Iraqi nation-state." They are willing, with extreme caution, to join a democratic, pluralist Iraqi federation. They have no love for the U.S.-inspired arranged marriage on the table that would give them no right of secession and not treat a federation as a voluntary union. Kurdistan's people prefer divorce now. "We deserve independence," said Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish semiautonomous region, because of what Kurds suffered under successive Baghdad regimes.

The Kurds have five "red lines" in the current negotiations. They want: Full law-making autonomy except for a small number of competencies reserved for the federal government; the right to control their security, including the lawful army of Kurdistan, the peshmerga; regional ownership of natural resources to finance their autonomy and security; satisfactory power-sharing arrangements in the federal government; and process to settle "disputed territories," particularly a referendum to allow the province of Kirkuk to join the Kurdistan region.

Barzani will not sign an agreement in Baghdad on Monday, the constitutional deadline, or any day thereafter. Instead, the Kurdistan National Assembly will review any draft and guide Kurds on how to vote in the ratification referendum scheduled for Oct. 15.

The Arabs are infamously divided. Both the Shiite majority and the formerly dominant Sunni minority have the potential to become separate nations. For now, it is the Shiites who matter, because they hold the majority on the constitution-writing commission and because the mostly Sunni insurgents cannot win.

If the Shiites had a free hand, they would reshape Iraq in their image, but they don't agree on what that is. Some want an Iraq that looks like Iran -- a theocracy, replete with Sharia outlawing alcohol and women's rights. They may get their way in provinces where they are strong. Some Shiites, however, insist they are as Arab as they are Shiite and are wary of imitating Iran. Still others are secular.

Will Shiites' and Kurds' common experiences of being brutalized by Saddam Hussein enable them to strike a constitutional bargain?

Key Shiite leaders agree with the Kurds on the need for democracy and, in principle, on federalism. Most Shiites have been wedded to a "majoritarian" democracy: The majority can do what it wants, with no constraints to protect human or minority rights. But some Shiite leaders realize they cannot dictate to Kurdistan, whose officials and peshmerga help sustain the current Baghdad government, and one top Shiite leader Abdelaziz Hakim, last week called for a semi-independent region in the Shiite-dominant south. A federal bargain is the price of Shiite preeminence in Arab Iraq.

Geology matters. Like the Kurds, many Shiites want regional control over Iraq's oil to ensure that locals benefit. While most of Iraq's black gold is in the southern provinces, Kurdistan also has a lot, especially if the Kurds control the region of Kirkuk. The central government abused its control of oil. Geology and politics thus favor a deal on natural resources between Kurds and Shiites.

So Kurds and Shiites may agree on a viable constitution that would represent the combined interests of more than 80% of Iraq's citizens. Which leaves the Sunni Arabs.

The mostly Sunni insurgents are at war with the majority Shiites, and in their dreams would reconquer Kurdistan. They don't want to be -- and cannot be -- part of the new constitution. The success of the constitution must be measured by their eventual defeat.

Among the non-insurgent Sunnis, there are no obvious leaders with whom to bargain. A few are liberals, democrats and human rights activists. More are nostalgic for Hussein. Some want to postpone the constitutional negotiations until after new elections to get more Sunnis to participate.

What the Kurdistan Alliance and the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance must do is to make a deal with sufficient protections -- for human rights, regional self-government, security arrangements and the distribution of resources -- to ensure that enough Sunni Arabs will not oppose the proposed constitution in the October referendum.

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