Last week, leaders of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority publicly announced their opposition to the final draft of Iraq’s new constitution, which will face the voters in a nationwide referendum on October 15. Weeks of prolonged negotiations beyond the August 15 drafting deadline were not enough to placate the Sunnis, who are concerned that federalism–a bottom-line demand of Shia and Kurdish leaders–may weaken Iraq’s unity over the long term.
Responding to Sunni dissatisfaction with the final document, Sen. Joe Biden has called for postponing the referendum until after the Iraqi elections scheduled for this December. In Biden’s view, the constitution should be renegotiated by a new parliament, which will presumably include more Sunni representatives, before moving to a national vote.
Biden’s proposal stems from a legitimate and almost universally shared desire to maximize Sunni support for the Iraqi political process. But his call for delaying the ratification vote could considerably impede that goal. Not only would it encourage Sunni brinksmanship and extremism in the future, but it is also unlikely to lead to further concessions beyond the reasonably moderate position on federalism already being espoused by the Shia and Kurds.
There is no question that integrating Sunni Arabs into the emerging democratic process should be a top strategic priority for the United States. But instead of expending precious political capital to re-jigger a constitutional process that is now effectively closed, U.S. policymakers should look beyond the constitution to the December elections and the political debates that will follow. Rather than changing the rules of the game, the goal should be to help Sunni political leaders participate fully and effectively within the framework of Iraq’s emerging democratic system.
A more realistic Sunni engagement strategy would begin by building on the progress already been made in convincing Sunnis to join the democratic process. As a result of their disastrous boycott of last January’s election, Sunni leaders learned an expensive lesson. In recent weeks, they have made clear to U.S. officials that despite their objection to specific constitutional provisions, they will participate in the December elections–whether or not the constitution is approved in the referendum.
U.S. policy should support these leaders by ensuring that any Sunni willing to vote in the upcoming referendum and election will in fact be able to do so. This is no small task. It will require working with the United Nations and the Iraqi electoral officials to complete the voter registration process on schedule, train thousands of election workers, ensuring the effective delivery of ballots, and providing security on election day. All this must be done with a special focus on the Sunni provinces of central Iraq. The Pentagon’s recent indications that troop levels in Iraq will temporarily increase over the election period is an early and important signal of commitment to this important goal.
Next, the U.S. should use every method at its disposal to help Sunni leaders coalesce and organize themselves into a small number of coherent political organizations and coalitions capable of competing on equal footing in the December elections.
Organization is the key to democratic politics. Yet since Saddam’s fall, internal divisions have precluded fair and effective Sunni representation at the national level. The Shia and Kurdish communities have developed effective political organizations, with recognized leaders capable of making decisions. The Sunnis have yet to do so, and they have suffered for it. Most recently, Shia and Kurdish leaders proved unwilling to sit down and negotiate seriously with their Sunni counterparts in the recent constitutional discussions, on the grounds that the Sunnis were unauthorized to make–and unable to deliver on–any serious concessions.
This problem will only be solved by the emergence of a new, post-Saddam Sunni political elite fully reconciled to Iraq’s democratic evolution. The Sunni community itself must take the lead in this effort. But an active and energetic U.S. diplomacy will also be critical in helping identify, reward, and support the leaders who do step forward. Most importantly, the U.S. should encourage the creation of broad-based political alliances necessary to win office and exercise power. These alliances should unite disparate leaders and parties within the Sunni community while also building bridges to non-Sunnis (for example, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi) who share concerns about federalism and Iranian interference. American democracy-building NGOs can also help promote Sunni political organization, by providing the parties and coalitions that emerge with campaign advice, logistical and other technical support.
Finally, the U.S. should work with Sunni representatives to adopt a constructive approach to federalism, which will likely continue to be the important issue in Iraqi domestic politics over the forthcoming year.
Whether the Sunnis like it or not, federalism in Iraq is a reality. The regional institutions of Iraqi Kurdistan are not going to disappear, and the desire of Iraqi Shia for greater local autonomy will likely to grow over time. The only question is whether or not Sunni leaders will work constructively to shape the evolution of Iraqi federalism so as to address the core concerns of their constituency.
Sunnis should consider two realistic approaches to federalism. One is to build coalitions with various Shia leaders to oppose the establishment of a nine-province “mega-region” in Southern Iraq. The mega-region approach remains extremely controversial within Shia circles, and Sunni efforts to weigh in on the debate could easily have an immediate effect. This option may mean acquiescing in the creation of several smaller regions, but it could address Sunni fears about the threat that a single political entity, rich with oil resources and easily susceptible to Iranian influence.
A second option is for the Sunnis could swing full circle and embrace the creation of a federal region of their own. After all, federalism is an ideal mechanism for protecting the rights of geographically-concentrated minorities. One or more Sunni regions in North-Central Iraq could lower the stakes of national politics, alleviate fears of Shia domination, and allow Sunnis to develop their institutions and retain control over their own affairs.
Either of these approaches (which are not mutually exclusive) would move the Sunni approach to federalism away from toothless rhetoric and into the realm of practical politics. The key for the United States is to help Sunni leaders rally around strategy as soon as possible, so they can shape events as opposed to merely responding to the initiatives of the other factions.
Despite their qualms about the constitution, there are clear signs that Sunni leaders are now finally willing to participate fully in the democratic process. This is a development with great potential to undermine the insurgency, and the U.S. should do everything possible to help Sunnis transform this impulse into effective action.
–Roman Martinez recently served as a political adviser to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, and as director for Iraq at the National Security Council.