The approval of the Iraqi Constitution in the October 15 referendum is another Pyrrhic victory for the Bush Administration in its effort to salvage its failed Iraq project. Like the January election and the other so-called democratic landmarks before it, the ratification of the Constitution may momentarily slow the erosion of domestic US support for the occupation. But also like the January election, the Constitution is almost certain to exacerbate sectarian divisions in Iraq while doing little or nothing to undermine popular support for the insurgency.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken the lead in spinning the outcome of the vote, arguing that the referendum has brought the Sunnis into the political process and suggesting that the Constitution now provides an accepted legal framework for governing Iraq. But evidence on the ground rebuts these claims. By international standards, the process for drafting and approving the Constitution was flawed from the beginning. In part because they boycotted the January election, the Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population, were badly underrepresented in the National Assembly and thus were largely frozen out of the decision-making. Not surprisingly, the document reflected Shiite and Kurdish domination of the government, especially on questions relating to the federal structure of the country. Last-minute amendments, reportedly engineered by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, including limits on de-Baathification, did soften some of the more offensive parts of the Constitution but did not alter the features most unacceptable to the Sunni minority other than to permit further revisions after the December elections. That’s why they took part in the vote–not, as Rice implied, to approve the political process but to register their profound disagreement with the Constitution and Shiite dominance.
The underlying cause of Sunni rejection remains the issue of federalism and the desire of the Shiites and Kurds for regional autonomy. The Constitution would permit the establishment of a highly autonomous nine-province region for the predominantly Shiite south as well as a three-province Kurdish region in the north. Many Sunnis, along with Shiite nationalists loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, oppose such a loose federal structure because it would severely weaken the central government and exclude them from a share in Iraq’s oil resources, which lie in the southern and northern parts of the country.
There is also the sensitive issue of the role of Islam. The Constitution declares Islam to be a primary source of legislation and calls for the appointment of experts in Sharia (Islamic law) to the Supreme Federal Court; this has sparked concerns among women and among Iraqis who favor a secular state. Moreover, the Constitution does not address the most explosive issue of all–the presence of foreign troops and foreign bases on Iraqi soil–and tacitly accepts many of the laws relating to the privatization of Iraqi industry imposed on the country by the Coalition Provisional Authority in the first days of the occupation. Occupation and the privatization of industry are anathema to most Iraqis.
Given the country’s internal divisions, the overall effect of the referendum’s approval may be to accelerate Iraq’s “descent into civil war and disintegration,” as the International Crisis Group warned before the vote. That outcome is even more likely if the charges of fraud and ballot-stuffing lodged against the Shiite-dominated government are shown to be true. In short, rather than bringing more Sunnis into the process, the ratification of the Constitution, along with widespread accusations of fraud perpetrated by the Shiite-led government, could fuel more Sunni anger and disenchantment, prompting more support for the insurgency.
Even more worrying, there is growing evidence that Iraqis are losing patience with the “democratic” process as well as with the occupation. As recent interviews by various journalists have shown, Iraqis are increasingly angry at the growing corruption, the lack of electricity and water, and the widespread anarchy. They blame the current government and, above all, the US occupation for this deplorable state of affairs. For these Iraqis the Constitution is at best irrelevant and at worst just another US-imposed measure that will only increase the violence and make the country’s problems more unmanageable. The only democratic landmark that really matters to them–the only one capable of reversing the spiral into more chaos and war, the only one that would create the conditions for real compromise–is an end to the occupation. Yet this is the one step the Bush Administration is unwilling to consider. Until it does, there is little hope that the deepening violence in Iraq will end.