Referendum Will Change Little

BEIRUT – Iraqis will vote this weekend in a referendum that is billed as decisive for their political future, and by extension crucial for restoring order in their violence-wracked country. But the country’s leaders and also the main mover behind the political process, the Bush administration, may find that the cycle of violence and political instability cannot be so easily broken.

Sunni resistance has not abated. The Committee of Muslim Scholars, the most influential Sunni religious group, is still urging its members to reject the constitution on Saturday.

The U.S. military, the Iraqi government, and people in the country are bracing themselves for another upsurge of violence during and immediately after the referendum. Streets in Baghdad were reported near deserted days before the vote as many people stayed home rather than risk being caught in violence.

The most important political and military facts on the ground will not be immediately affected by the outcome of the referendum. The central institutions of the country are now firmly dominated by the Shi’ites and to a lesser degree the Kurds. The Shi’ites will never again agree to be dominated by the Sunnis. The Kurds will never again accept a strong role of the central government in their northern enclave, and the Sunnis will need a very long time to adjust to their loss of power and economic dominance.

The insurgents, whether supported by Syria, Iran, al-Qaeda or all of the above, will not be convinced to lay down their arms because of a new constitution. And the document itself seems way too flawed at the moment to inspire Iraqis to a new national cause.

But any government needs some legal basis to operate, and in that sense the constitution does what needs to be done: it would, after new elections in December provide a break with both the legal framework of the occupation as well as with the Ba’ath state that was ruled by Saddam Hussein.

If the constitution is accepted and the elections that follow it show increased Sunni participation, then the process may at least confer more legitimacy on the Iraqi government in the eyes of the outside, particularly the Arab, world. How useful this will be, since regional and international politics are more determined by interests than by perceptions of legitimacy, remains to be seen.

A rejection of the constitution could only come about through a tremendous level of political participation and organization on the part of the Sunnis. They would have to turn out in huge numbers to block the passage of the document, something very few people think likely.

Some U.S. officials have tried to put a preemptive positive spin on this scenario, saying that such Sunni political participation would be a triumph for democracy in Iraq, regardless of the fate of the constitution.

In case the constitution is rejected, elections would follow for a new assembly, and the drafting process would start all over again. But the Kurds and the Shi’ites, given their large majority, would still dominate the assembly and the drafting committee, and push through a very similar version of the constitution.

Such a scenario might only show the Sunnis how small a minority they are and how little their votes count, even if they all unite and participate in the political process. If that were to be so, it would only encourage support for the militants.

What Iraq needs is time to build up army and police services that can provide the people with security, law and order and that can battle militants of any stripe. It does need the legal framework to oversee these institutions, and that is where the constitution comes in. It will also need some strong checks and balances to check the power of the majority and provide guarantees to the Sunni minority.

Whether the current draft of the constitution provides all this is doubtful, but it is equally doubtful that any other version to come out of the current political process will be any better.

Here the role of the Americans becomes important. Unable to tackle the insurgency by military means, much hope was pinned on the political process, possibly as a face-saving way of extricating the United States from Iraq.

Whatever the American hopes and ambitions for Iraq, they will have to face sooner rather than later that they cannot so easily shape the future of a country and an entire region.

The constitution is already a disappointment where secular issues and the rights of women are concerned. Iraq, by virtue of its large Shi’ite population is drifting increasingly into an Iranian orbit, much to the horror of other Sunni countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia.

Does all of this mean that the whole invasion was in vain? The Iraqi and American people will have to answer that question in the light of all the sacrifices they are making.