- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

While it’s an understatement to say Iraq’s present draft constitution doesn’t please everybody, it is already a document replete with compromises. Delivered to the National Assembly shortly before the midnight deadline Monday, Iraqi leaders quickly answered the Sunnis’ immediate rejection of the draft by allotting three extra days for negotiations. The willingness of Kurdish and Shi’ite leaders to defer — for now — to Sunni obstructionism is a hopeful sign, one no doubt bearing the heavy hand of Washington. Indeed, whatever keeps the three quarreling factions together, however short-sighted, must be tolerated.

Nevertheless, Iraqis are beginning to understand the art of compromise. The issue of whether Iraq will be an Islamic or secular state was partially resolved when Kurdish and Shi’ite draft committee members agreed that Islam would be “a” main source for legislation, rather than “the” source. The Islamic nature of Iraq’s constitution is further minimalized by subsequent clauses declaring that “no law may contradict democratic standards.” As Americans have discovered with our own Constitution, so much depends on how these two clauses are later interpreted. But considering that religion was one of the main points of contention between Kurds and Shi’ites, any compromise that doesn’t enshrine the Koran as “the” law of the land should be welcome.

The main focus of Sunni opposition is on federalism. The Sunnis are resisting efforts within the constitution to diffuse centralized power to regional governments, which would take away much of central Iraq’s traditional dominance. Part of their opposition has to do with power; but in the Middle East power is oil, and Iraq’s oil fields are concentrated in the northern (Kurdish) and southern (Shi’ite) regions. The draft constitution stipulates that all current oil production be put under the control of the central government, meaning that oil revenues would be distributed throughout the country. While this is intended to be another compromise, control of future oil production would go to the regional governments where the oil is concentrated. In other words, to the Kurds and Shi’ites. Sunnis are justified in their fears that over time cities like Baghdad and Fallujah would fall into financial ruin.

Of course, because they boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, much of the Sunnis’ dissatisfaction is of their own making. Their severe underrepresentation in the National Assembly, in which they hold just 17 of the 275 seats, means that the draft constitution could pass without their endorsement. But the Sunnis might be able to defeat the constitution during the Oct. 15 referendum, which would require two-thirds of voters in three provinces to reject it. The Sunnis control four provinces, but getting two-thirds may be difficult. If it is defeated, the best possible scenario would be another election, followed by another constitutional convention. The other scenario is civil war, which would be equally hard on the minority Sunnis.

We simply do not know whether what we are witnessing is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end.

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