Iraq constitution looks good on paper

Freedom Newspapers

After some prodding from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the new U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, it appears that some kind of constitution for Iraq, at least on paper, will be ready by Aug. 15.

That will give both the Bush administration and the Iraqi government the ability to say the process of moving toward self-government is on track. It will provide formal assurance that thinking about reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is at least feasible. But will it resolve any of Iraq’s lingering problems of governance or simply paper over them?

Nathan Brown, on leave from the political science department at George Washington University and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written four books on Arab politics and has been following the constitution-writing process closely, translating drafts as they become available. He says Iraq’s problems fall into three main categories: religion, federalism, security.

Iraq was formed by British imperialists after World War I with boundaries that took little account of religious and ethnic realities. Present-day Iraq is about 65 percent Shia Muslim, just under 20 percent Sunni Muslims, and almost 20 percent Kurds, who are generally Sunni in religion but differ ethnically from the Arabs who predominate elsewhere.

The Shia majority on the drafting commission has included language stipulating that Islamic law, or Sharia, will be “the source, but not the primary or only source, of law,” according to Brown, but language barring laws in direct contradiction of Islamic law is likely to remain.

The unresolved question is who — parliament, a supreme constitutional court, clerics? — will decide what is a clear contradiction. This could, among other things, leave the status of women fuzzy. And will the state or religious authorities regulate marriage?

The federalism issue is important because the Kurds in the north have had effective semi-autonomy since 1991 and don’t want to give up much of it to a central state likely to be dominated by Shiites. While the general principle of strong local government to handle many day-to-day affairs seems to have been accepted, the devil can be in the details.

Saddam Hussein reworked the boundaries of the Kurdish regions. Will they be changed to reflect where Kurds actually live? Will local governments, new regional governments or the national government control oil revenues? Will both Kurdish and Arabic be official languages? What will happen to Kirkuk, which was predominantly Kurdish before Saddam engaged in “ethnic cleansing?”

As to security, civil war now seems a more pressing concern than a possible military coup. Does that suggest a strong military force controlled by a central government? If so, what will be the status of existing local militias? And what will be the relationship with U.S. forces, even if they are substantially reduced?

These problems are likely to be papered over rather than resolved. That might give the U.S. permission to begin withdrawal, but it is unlikely to create a peaceful society in Iraq.