Politics & Policy

Deadlock Again?

Constitutional deliberations in Iraq don't look good.

As of Monday morning, Iraq’s “permanent” constitution remains up in the air, hours before the second deadline for its completion by Iraq’s National Assembly (4 P.M. EST). Deadlock persists among Iraq’s three main factions over first principles: federalism and the role of Islam in public life.

It’s still possible that ongoing negotiations are simply an exercise in brinksmanship and that agreement will be reached by today’s deadline. But that’s unlikely. Over the past week, demands have escalated and positions have hardened, especially on the part of Iraq’s majority Shia and minority Sunnis, with the Kurds seeking to hold their corner against the others.

In the absence of a common Iraqi identity–under Saddam’s Republic of Fear there were only masters and slaves–U.S. pressure to reach a premature overall political settlement risks splintering Iraq into its component parts based solely on narrow communal identity.

At stake are exactly the same issues in play (see here and here) since the overthrow of the Baathist state. Is Iraq as a whole–that is, as a unitary state based on pluralism–worth more to its leaders and citizens than the sum of its parts? Will Iraq’s three main factions insist on their ultimate aims or settle for more proximate accommodations?

Will Iraq’s majority Shia overreach by practicing winner-take-all majoritarianism, especially by imposing a sectarian Islamist regime on Iraq’s pluralist realities?

Will the formerly dominant Sunnis continue to sabotage or at least hold hostage the new democratic dispensation?

Will the Kurds bolt, prompted by their own miscalculations–or, more likely– by Sunni provocations or Shia triumphalism?

Above all, is there room within one state for all three groups, given their unhappy history together and good reasons to distrust one another? If so, under what terms?

Finally, what exactly does success or failure in Iraq mean for the Bush administration’s overall grand strategy, “the forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”?

Here’s how the various factions remain divided:

Shia. Iraq’s majority (perhaps 60 percent) is represented by an overlapping clerical and political elite demanding as much Islam as possible–and as few restraints on majority rule–as necessary. According to the latest reports, the Shia Islamist parties are demanding that “Islam” (however defined) serve as “the main source” for all future laws; that no laws contradict “Islam” (though precisely who makes that call remains at issue); and that the senior Shia clerical leadership–Iraq’s five grand ayatollahs (the marjaiyyah)–are granted constitutional status. This latter demand is anathema to Sunni religious parties and clerics, many of whom regard the Shia tradition of Islam as apostasy. It is not encouraging that Shia political leaders agreed to drop this demand and then reinserted it into the final draft constitution that was not voted on last Monday.

Sunnis. Iraq’s formerly dominant minority has still not come to terms with the loss of its longtime ascendancy. Large parts remain resentful and intransigent, persisting in a state of nostalgia and fantasy, looking back to their supposedly rightful role as Iraq’s ruling class and looking forward to their restoration by neighboring Sunni kingdoms (Jordan and Saudi Arabia), the minority Baathist regime in Syria, and the rest of the Islamic world (85percent Sunni). That’s absurd, but whatever other Sunnis may think privately, they’ve been silenced by the terrorist offensive led by former Baathists and foreign jihadists, both Sunnis and both allies of convenience. Nor have they been well served by their self-appointed leaders, who emerged only after it became clear that boycotting January’s election was a huge mistake.

These “leaders”–rightly termed “unrepresentative fantasists” by a friend of mine now advising the Kurds–come in two flavors. One is the Iraqi Islamic party, a hitherto unknown group that is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the progenitor of every Sunni terrorist group from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (which murdered Sadat) to Hamas (in Palestine and Israel) to Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia (which carried out the 2002 Bali bombings) to al Qaeda. The other is the so-called Association of Muslim Scholars, a gaggle of former Baathist clerics hired and paid for by Saddam (Shia clerics, by contrast, were trained and paid for by private provision). The AMS, by the way, has served as chaplains and cheerleaders for terrorists and refuses to endorse any vote so long as Coalition forces remain in Iraq to protect Iraq’s own elected government.

Both groups insist on an Islamic state, though strictly on their own (sectarian) terms. At the same time, they adamantly oppose federalism, the prerequisite for Iraqis living together in one state. That’s frankly puzzling, given that a 20-percent minority spread largely across 4-5 of Iraq’s18 provinces should welcome autonomy, given a rightful distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues (generated in the Shia south and Kurdish north).

Kurds. Our closest allies in Iraq are seeking to keep what they already have, along with the possibility of reclaiming Kirkuk–and its substantial oil resources–as part of Kurdistan. Kurds regard Kirkuk as part of their historical patrimony, but are willing to put its future to a referendum. On other basic issues the Kurds are willing to compromise, including their right to secede and the public role of Islam. On the latter, the more secular Kurds have been stymied by Shia Islamist intransigence: “You try and put these phrases in, it creates a theocracy, and people don’t want this,” one Kurdish negotiator said. “Nobody could bring a beer here, nobody could go out on the streets without a scarf. Did America want that?”

What exactly does America want?

That question has arisen with particular force over the past week. The U.S. administration has sent mixed messages, beginning with newly arrived Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s forthright defense of women’s rights in the face of an implacably hostile sharia legal regime. But there are now press reports of U.S. backsliding across the board in the face of determined opposition from the Shia and Sunni blocs. Based on conversations with administration sources, it seems the fix is in for any deal that can be presented as a success–and the gateway for an exit strategy. And there seems a fixation for engaging so-called Sunni leaders who represent no one but themselves and are in no position to negotiate with Baathist and jihadists terrorists determined to fight to the death.

If today’s talks fall short, the least-worst option is simply to fall back on the current interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) until elections in December. That would preserve vital political momentum toward a more decent and democratic society. And it would allay the concerns expressed by a senior Kurdish politician: “Your American ambassador is giving an Islamic character to the state. You spent all this money and all this blood to bring an Islamic republic here.”

“We are very worried.”

The rest of us should worry, too.

John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops, focusing on international law, international religious freedom, and human rights.


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