A Lose-Lose Referendum?

Five days before Saturday’s referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution, the U.S. foreign policy elite appears both anxious and gloomy, increasingly worried that win or lose, the process will bring Iraq one step closer to civil war and, with it, the possible destabilization of the wider region.

The constitution’s approval, in the view of many experts, will likely further alienate the Sunni population from the political process, and thus add fuel to an insurgency that neither 150,000 U.S. troops, nor what the George W. Bush administration claims is an additional nearly 200,000 Iraqi soldiers, has been able to subdue.

If, on the other hand, Sunnis and other ethnic discontents are able to defeat the referendum by gaining two-thirds majorities in three provinces – an unlikely prospect, according to the most assessments – the constitutional process would have to start all over again. This could well make Shi’ites and Kurds much more inclined to take the offensive against the Sunnis than they have to date.

“A defeat of the constitution could deepen Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divisions, and many observers fear that the odds of Shi’ite retaliation would increase,” wrote Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who advised the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week.

“The fact that Shi’ites have not retaliated systematically [against Sunni attacks] is the only thing now standing between Iraq and a major civil war,” he warned.

Some experts believe that a civil war is already underway, even if it is not yet a full-blown conflict. “I think what we’re seeing is a creeping civil war that is not necessarily starting at one particular point in time or over one particular issue,” Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab constitutions at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Council of Foreign Relations last week.

“If accounts from the ground are to be believed, there is already some ethnic cleansing going on in some neighborhoods and some areas within Iraq,” he said. “I don’t think the referendum is going to be a particular trigger for making that situation much worse, but it’s not going to make it any better.”

The reason, according to top U.S. military officers in Iraq, is clear enough. “We’ve looked for the constitution to be a national pact, and the perception now is that it’s not,” Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, told lawmakers here last week. “Now this constitution has come out, and it didn’t come out as a national compact that we thought it was going to be.”

Indeed, the most important parts of the draft charter – or at least those to which the Sunnis are most strongly opposed – were worked out between the Kurds and the major Shi’ite parties despite U.S. efforts to broker a deal that would go far toward meeting the concerns of Sunnis and Shi’ite secularists.

Kurds and Sunnis each make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, while Shi’ites represent about 60 percent. Other groups, such as Turkmen and Christians, make up much smaller percentages of the population.

The Sunnis’ main concerns include provisions that could be used to discriminate against ex-Ba’ath Party members, ambiguous language about how the country’s oil wealth will be divided between the national and local governments, and, most important, the constitutional mandate that permits the establishment of a nine-province, highly autonomous region for the predominantly Shi’ite south, as well as a less controversial, three-province Kurdish region in the north.

Sunnis object to this confederal structure because it would both severely weaken the central government, which Sunnis had dominated since the Ottoman Empire, and possibly exclude the predominantly Sunni western provinces from getting a proportional share of Iraq’s oil wealth, which is produced only in the northern and southern parts of the country.

In addition, Sunnis express concerns that an autonomous Shi’ite south will be dominated by neighboring Iran, which is believed to provide material and other support to the Shi’ite parties there.

Even some supporters of the U.S. invasion have complained about the result. At a meeting at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute last week, Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-born professor at Brandeis University who spent the day that U.S. troops took Baghdad in the White House with U.S. President George W. Bush, called the charter “a fundamentally destabilizing document.”

“The deal we have is a patently unworkable deal,” he said. “To the extent that it is made to work, it will work toward fratricide.”

Sunni leaders are currently split between recommending a “no” vote against the constitution and boycotting the plebiscite altogether, as they did in last January’s legislative elections.

Despite the referendum’s imminence, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been working feverishly to persuade the Kurdish and Shi’ite parties to amend the draft in ways that might satisfy the Sunnis, but has so far gained only token concessions. Washington has also enlisted neighboring Sunni-dominated governments, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have both warned that approval of the constitution could provoke civil war, to press their Iraqi co-religionists into a deal.

But success is deemed unlikely at this point, and U.S. officials are stressing possible upsides to the vote. “The good news is that you’re getting very heavy debate and interest in this entire process,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Monday on a trip to Central Asia.

The hopeful scenario calls for a significant Sunni turnout that, although unsuccessful in defeating the constitution, would show them, in Feldman’s words, that “participation in electoral politics is a viable option for them despite their minority status.”

“[I]nstead of boycotting legislative elections as they did before, they would return to the polls in December [when the next elections are scheduled] and choose representatives who would then serve as legitimate voices for their collective aspirations.”

Growing tensions between Kurds and among Shi’ite parties that have emerged in recent weeks could, according to this view, persuade Sunnis that the system established by the constitution – which is deliberately vague on many key points – could protect or even advance their rights.

But this is a long shot, according to Makiya, who believes the combination of violence and the constitution threatens “the very idea and very possibility of an Iraq.”

Barbara Bodine, a veteran diplomat and Middle East expert currently at Harvard University, whose appointment to a senior CPA post after the invasion was blocked by neoconservatives in the Pentagon, echoed that view.

“The United States has ‘Lebanonized’ Iraq,” she told the Congressional Quarterly this week. “It is ironic that a structure that worked so poorly for Lebanon is now the template for Iraq.”

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.