Iraq, the Constitution and the Fate of a President
By George Friedman
The elections scheduled in Iraq for Dec. 15 have generated what is becoming a permanent feature of Iraqi politics. The process of establishing a constitution has become the battleground among the three major ethnic factions over the nature of political arrangements in Iraq, the distribution of power, the character of the regime and, of course, how oil revenues will be shared. Each milestone on the road to a constitution has become an occasion for intensifying both the negotiating and military process, with no milestone becoming definitive. Thus, the Oct. 15 referendum will give way to December's general elections, and today's negotiations set the stage for the next round of negotiations.
All of this can be taken two ways. One way to view it is that the Iraqi situation is fundamentally insoluble, that the various parties cannot achieve a permanent resolution to the problem. Another way of looking at it is that this process is the permanent solution: Iraq will be an endless reshuffling of a finite political deck, with no end in sight. There are other countries that live this way, and the solution is that they muddle through: politics and the state are devalued, while the rest of society -- clans, families, corporations, organized crime -- are emphasized. An Iraq with eternally shifting politics is not incompatible with the notion of a functioning society.
This assessment, of course, ignores a number of things. First, Iraq is occupied by U.S. troops. Second, there is a war going on in which the Sunnis are fighting the occupation. The Iranians are in the wings -- actually, on the stage -- trying to dominate Iraq as much as possible. A border war is raging along the Syrian frontier. A broader war involving the United States and jihadists is still sputtering along. Therefore, any hope has to be viewed through the prism of this violence, and the question is simple: can the emerging political process ultimately reduce -- "eliminate" is too much to ask -- the level of violence? Put another way, from the U.S. side, can the present political process solve the problems of occupation while yielding the political goals Washington wanted? From the jihadist side, can the uncertainty of the political process be exploited to create the conditions for what Ayman al-Zawahiri described in a recent letter: the jihadist domination of Iraq? Or, will the conflict between political goals undermine the process and create permanent war instead of permanent instability?
The core difference between this milestone and the last -- the generation of a proposed constitution for consideration by the legislature and, through this referendum, the public -- is that, whereas the last round of negotiations ended in an inability of the Shia and Kurds to reach an agreement with the Sunnis, this one has ended in an agreement of sorts. That agreement frames the situation, inasmuch as it is less an agreement than a framework for ongoing negotiations.
Some Sunni leaders have opposed any agreement or participation in the constitutional referendum; others have supported participation with a "no" vote. What appears to have been crafted between the Shia and negotiating Sunni groups is this:
If the constitution is approved, it will be a temporary, not permanent, constitution.
After a general election on Dec. 15 that would be based on this constitution, a committee of the National Assembly would review the document once again.
The new parliament would have four months to complete changes to the document.
A new vote would be held to ratify that final constitution.
In other words, the agreement that has been reached here between the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds is simply that all sides will focus on the constitutional negotiations.
That's not a bad deal, if the negotiations can encompass a large enough spectrum of each group's leadership and if everyone agrees to put other issues on hold. You can spend a lot of time debating the rules under which you will debate the issues, and you can defuse other issues if that is what everyone wants to do. The problem here is that it is not clear that this is what everyone wants.
A major Sunni organization -- the Iraqi Islamic Party -- has agreed to these rules. Other groups, at least as or more important than the Iraqi Islamic Party, have not. Neither the Association of Muslim Scholars nor the Iraqi General Conference appear at this moment to have changed their position, which is that Sunni voters should reject the new constitution. That in itself is not as alarming as it appears. The Sunnis, and other factions, are represented by several groups, and these groups sometimes play "good cop, bad cop" very effectively. The signal the Sunnis are giving is that they are not rejecting the constitutional process out of hand, but that they will need serious coaxing before the vote comes about. They are taking it down to the wire, which is the rational thing to do under the circumstances.
Three serious pressures are converging on the Sunnis. First, simply refraining from participating in the Oct. 15 referendum could free the Shia and Kurds to set up a regional federal system that would leave the Sunnis as the weakest player -- and the one with least access to future oil revenues. At the same time, the traditional Sunni leadership, deeply complicit in the Baath dictatorship, has substantial reason to fear the jihadists. The jihadists are not part of the traditional leadership and are, in fact, ideological enemies of Baathism. If the jihadists grow in strength, the traditional leadership might find itself displaced by them over time. On the other hand, agreeing to participate in the country's political process would open the Sunni leadership up to charges of being, not only lackeys of the United States, but also stooges to the hated Shia. More than any other group in Iraq, the Sunnis need for the jihadists to be defeated. On the other hand, they know they can't count on the Americans to deliver this defeat. They are under pressure to find a political solution, but also under powerful pressure not to find one. So, they churn around, generally heading toward a solution but never quite getting there.
The position of the Shia is simpler, and they have more ways of winning. If the constitution leads to a simple federalist government, the Shia will dominate southern Iraq and can deal with the Sunnis at their leisure. If a centralized government is created, the Shia will be -- with the Kurds -- the majority. The only thing the Shia can't live with is the one thing the Sunnis want: a constitution so contrived that the Sunnis can block major initiatives by the Shia.
The Kurds can live with a lot of solutions and can create informal realities based on geography and their own military strength and American backing. Their interest is less institutional than geopolitical -- they want Mosul and Kirkuk. More precisely, they want to dominate the northern oil fields and trade, and to exclude the Sunnis as far as possible from these interests. Whether that is accomplished through constitutional or business means is of less interest to them than that it be done.