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Iraq’s Constitutional Revision: Give the Iraqi Politicians an Offer They Cannot Refuse

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
11 June 2007

Despite some recent movement of leading figures from one camp to another, US debate about policy in Iraq remains essentially polarised. On the one hand, supporters of President George W. Bush are hoping for a military miracle that will improve security and thereby make Iraqi politicians more compromise-oriented. On the other hand, those in favour of US disengagement and increased multilateralism see the involvement of neighbouring states as the key to resolving the Iraq situation.

It is unclear why either of these approaches should have any likelihood of success. Improved security does not in itself eliminate the current main problem: divisive sectarian pet projects promoted by Iraqi politicians who are out of touch with their electorates. If anything, an improvement of Baghdad security without any incentives for making political concessions might just make it even easier for the Iraqi politicians to persist in their current parochial squabbling, far removed from the people they claim to represent. Similarly, multilateralism, politically correct as this concept is seen to be in some circles, may be a false hope when it comes to Iraqi reconciliation. It is highly unclear why and how a series of meetings between neighbouring states should be enough to prompt the most recalcitrant Iraqi parties in the constitutional revision process to suddenly abandon their ways. A flurry of diplomatic activity would ensue, and EU officials and Democrats in the United States would probably feel very satisfied. But most likely, the people of Iraq would continue to suffer.

The current state of the stalled constitutional revision process in Iraq in many ways reflects this problem. Sources close to the negotiations report that the Kurds – egged on by Peter Galbraith’s orthodox 1780s reading of the US constitution and his seemingly constant fear of hidden Commerce Clauses – are resisting even a very modest strengthening of the role of the central government, including in spheres of administration that are normally reserved for the federal authorities in the modern world even in highly decentralised polities. (By way of contrast, the “exclusive powers” of the federal Iraqi government as per the 2005 constitution do not even include areas such as for instance the administration of customs, or civil aviation.) In this context, the Kurds’ primary partner, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) – whose arguments against any substantial changes to the 2005 constitution tend to be completely in sync with those of the Iranian establishment – has been allowed to play the role as “moderate”, by fronting a very limited expansion of the prerogatives of the central government. Thereby they have succeeded in shifting attention away from the more painful basic questions of federalism and the creation of new federal entities, where they continue to guard against any attack against their cause célèbre of a single sectarian Shiite region.

Accordingly, it seems unlikely that the final report of the constitutional revision committee will make any fundamental changes with regard to the controversial parameters and procedures for forming new federal regions. Instead, the most likely scenario for the revised constitution is some kind of “compromise” between the Kurds and SIIC, with only a very minor expansion of the prerogatives of the almost ridiculously weak central government envisioned in the October 2005 constitution. This is so because these groups, whose leaders are true masters in the art of back-room politics, dominate the constitutional revision committee out of proportion to their parliamentary (let alone popular) strength, and will be able to control its final decisions. An outcome along these lines might possibly bring about a temporary truce inside the Green Zone. It is also conceivable that the Bush administration will try to spin it as an achievement of national reconciliation, and may be tempted to use it as a cover to push through petroleum legislation that will be favourable to foreign investment in the oil sector. Blind to the most obvious vector of Iranian influence in Iraq, they may bank on their SIIC partners to rule the country for them, Shiites and Sunnis alike.

Before choosing this course, however, Washington ought to carefully think through exactly how far beyond the perimeter of the Iraqi national assembly the popular appeal of this kind of constitutional settlement would extend. The first problem is the mainstream Sunni position, which continues to be full of scepticism with regard to federalism – although Sunnis now by and large accept the idea of a Kurdish federal entity and are prepared to discuss federalism south of Kurdistan as long as federal sectarian entities are somehow avoided. Unfortunately, the Sunni stance on this is almost invariably misinterpreted in the West, where there is a belief that the Sunnis can be cajoled into enthusiasm for federalism, or, at the very least, can be mollified through a distribution formula for oil revenue that would guarantee a fair “Sunni” share of Iraq’s oil. This economic reading of the Iraq situation wildly underestimates the depth and profundity of Sunni opposition to federalism. It posits an erroneous image of the Sunni Arabs as a group of people who spend all their time walking about the barren deserts of western Iraq while tirelessly concocting stratagems for how to get their hands on the oil revenue of the Basra area in the south. In reality, Sunni opposition to federalism has more to do with ideas about Iraqi and Arab nationalism, as well as with the traditional ideal of a strong centralised government based in Baghdad.

Even less noticed in the West is that much Shiite scepticism to federalism runs along exactly the same lines. Often overlooked is how the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s guarded “Yes” to the 2005 constitution (it is often misconstrued as a “fatwa”) in fact came only reluctantly, and with explicit reservations regarding (unspecified) misgivings about the current version of the Iraqi charter. An analysis of Sistani’s rhetoric shows that the question about state structure and federalism remains the area where he is at variance with the pro-federal SIIC politicians who constantly try to exploit his religious prestige. No indicator is more telling in this regard than the conspicuous absence of terms such as “federalism” and “regions” from Sistani’s vocabulary, even in a context where he has been regularly courted by SIIC politicians eager for him to utter precisely those magic words. Instead, his rhetoric has been focused on the idea of national unity and a strong central government, and it seems unlikely that any constitutional revision devoid of radical change in this direction would stand to benefit from the unique legitimacy of a Sistani endorsement.

In short, this kind of cosmetic constitutional revision could well end up being rejected by Sunnis and Shiites alike (for its failure to provide a more meaningful role for Baghdad as capital), and, for good measure, by the Kurds as well (who, conversely, might choose to protest against what they see as “excessive” concessions to the central authorities). How, then, can a more balanced constitutional revision with a wider popular appeal be achieved? It is actually quite easy. Instead of today’s murky behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, the United States could make a very public offer of an exceptional deal for Iraq – a sort of investment package where there would be certain strings attached, but also significant concessions to the Iraqis. In accordance with its stated intentions of preserving a unified Iraq and achieving political reconciliation, Washington should publicly reaffirm its belief in Iraqi nationalism and its preparedness to put money into Iraqi unity, but also announce that it is worried that these values are not being adequately reflected in the ongoing constitutional revision. The Bush administration could back this up with an attack on the divisive agendas of Iraqi politicians and their sectarian obstinacy where they are at their weakest and where they enjoy little popular legitimacy: federalism south of Kurdistan. A suitable formula that could be presented to the Iraqis would be something like this: “Come up with a revised constitution which contains some kind of limitation on federalism south of Kurdistan [obviously not to be micro-managed by the United States, but it could include, for example, size limits, moratoria, multi-level asymmetric federalism*, supermajorities, or otherwise stricter criteria for creating regions], and in return you shall be given a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, plus – as part of the deal, because we believe in the nation-building effect of moderation in the federalism question – an extraordinary aid package.”

This would be a real olive branch to Sunnis and at the same time in harmony with a way of thinking preferred by many ordinary Shiites – including supporters of the Sadrists and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Various suggestions for less extreme federal formulas have repeatedly been advanced by these groups, including size limits on regions (demanded by the Shiite Fadila party as well as by Sunni figures such as Salih al-Mutlak and Tariq al-Hashimi), and a requirement about supermajorities (instead of today’s simple majorities) in order to win a referendum for a new federal region, as advocated for instance by the Sunni Tawafuq bloc. At the same time, this sort of revised constitution would be consonant with the traditional, pre-2005 Kurdish approach to federalism, where the goal was to ensure a privileged position for the Kurds rather than trying to dictate a federal future for those Iraqis who dislike a decentralised system of government. The current Kurdish position is eminently understandable given their historical experience of having been let down so severely by the international community, but in their programmatic and rather frantic search for other Iraqis who are willing to adopt their preference for a powerless central government, they are constructing a state model so fragile and devoid of popular legitimacy south of Kurdistan that ultimately they may harm both Kurdish interests as well as regional stability more generally.

Above all, this would be an offer that would call the bluff of Iraqi politicians who speak in the name of nationalism but act in a divisive, parochial manner: no Iraqi politician south of Kurdistan will be able to look his or her constituents in the eye and tell them that they have forgone a timetable for US withdrawal for the petty sake of sectarian federal entities. When compared with the importance of the departure of foreign forces, federalism is viewed as completely insignificant by most Iraqis south of Sulaymaniyya, regardless of their sectarian affiliation. Thus, for the first time in this process, Iraqi politicians would come under real pressure from below, and adherence to the lofty nationalist ideals they constantly avow would become the yardstick for performance. In contrast to the relatively superficial changes that are currently on the table in the constitutional revision committee, a settlement along these lines would carry the potential for achieving widespread legitimacy among ordinary Iraqis, and a safer and more solid fundament on which to build a new Iraq.

This, of course, would also be the logical opposite of certain diehard “alternative” US plans for imposed ethno-sectarian federal entities in Iraq (i.e. Biden, Gelb, Galbraith et al.), as well as a significant corrective to the Bush administration’s current policy of formally supporting Iraqi nationalism whilst in practice giving preferential treatment precisely to those forces among the Iraqis that are least nationalist in their actual policies. In general, Westerners tend to underestimate the endurance of Iraqi nationalist ideals, and do not realise how vilified sectarianism as a political programme remains among Iraqis. Despite much of today’s horrific violence being perpetrated precisely along sectarian lines, sectarianism is still seen as an ugly political force with no legitimacy whatsoever in Iraqi nationalist or Islamist political discourse. The abhorrence of “formal” sectarianism among Iraqis is such that they will never venture to create laws with expressions like for instance “the Shiites shall have x per cent of the oil”, which is what some American politicians appear to expect from them. That sort of overt sectarianism is considered too depraved and too base even for those Iraqis who are currently seeking to exploit communitarian identities in more subtle ways. Conversely, a constitution built on nationalist values would be more in tune with the long lines of Iraqi history (where peaceful nationalism blossomed decades before the Baath party was founded), and with less risk of political crises resulting from haphazard ventures into uncharted constitutional territory. But time is beginning to run out if Washington wishes to reconnect with the broad segment of nationalists among the Iraqis before it is too late: there are increasing signs that the leaderships of even firmly anti-Iranian parties among the Shiites (such as the Fadila) are now being courted aggressively by Tehran.

What has the United States got to lose from an alignment with Iraqi nationalism? If the Iraqis accept the offer, then, ostensibly, Washington has achieved all it wants in Iraq: a more unified country that can stand on its own feet. If the Iraqis decline, the Bush administration can simply revert to its current policy, and it will have lost nothing. Rather, it would finally be in a position to say that it has given Iraqi nationalism a fair chance. Of course, the idea of outside interference in an internal Iraqi matter is in itself highly questionable. But, if done with the genuine aim of strengthening Iraqi nationalism at a time when elected Iraqi politicians seem incapable of translating their own nationalist rhetoric into deeds, and if presented as a form of well-intended conditionality on an increased US investment in Iraq (hence the extra aid), many Iraqis would probably prove receptive. Above all, this would be a bilateral deal and a package with something for both sides. As such, it would be an improvement on the imperialist dynamics of instruments like “benchmarks”, which echo the hated “mandate” of the British period (the Iraqis always wanted a straightforward bilateral treaty instead.)

A constitutional revision designed to break the cycle of violence must build on Iraqi nationalism. Modifying federalism in the Iraqi charter is the best option for doing so, and if Washington truly wants to see a unified Iraq, it can easily nudge the Iraqis in this direction.


* Multi-level asymmetric federalism could replace today’s dichotomous arrangement (i.e. regions vs. governorates) in which concessions by the centre to the Kurds automatically are replicated for any potential federal region and thereby inevitably drag non-Kurdish federalists into more radical territory than they may have been aiming for originally.

For rare American perspectives on Iraqi nationalism as a positive force, see:

Robert Dreyfuss: “Is There a Nationalist Solution in Iraq?” and The Dreyfuss Report

Helena Cobban: “Cross-Sectarian Politics inside Iraq Today” and the Just World News blog
Badger: “Sadr Thanks Sunni Authorities for Their Statement”, and the blog Missing Links

For sound advice from an international NGO on how Iraqi nationalism must have a central role in any meaningful settlement of the Iraq crisis, see reports by the International Crisis Group:

Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis, Middle East Report N°64, 19 April 2007

After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq, Middle East Report N°60, 19 December 2006

Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?, Middle East Report N°55, 11 July 2006

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