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Analysts see rift growing over Iraq charter
San Francisco Chronicle


August 30, 2005

The Bush administration has consistently portrayed Iraq's draft constitution as an all-important document that will help unite the fragmented nation, draw its disaffected Sunni Muslims into the political process, curb the violent insurgency and allow for the phased withdrawal of American troops beginning as early as next year.

President Bush praised the proposed charter, delivered to the country's National Assembly on Sunday, as "a document of which the Iraqis and the rest of the world can be proud."

But many analysts say the document, which is scheduled to go before a national referendum in less than two months, is anything but a step toward a safer, more stable Iraq.

"Whatever the public rhetoric, this is a significant complication at best and a defeat at worst," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Iraq at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Already, the proposed constitution has been denounced by Sunni leaders, who are trying to derail it over fears that a proposal for a federalist system would concentrate too much power in the hands of a semiautonomous Shiite state.

Instead of a document that would pave the way for Iraqis to tackle the insurgency, as well as religious and ethnic fragmentation, and other critical problems like unemployment and a collapsed infrastructure, "we have a bad constitution that is going to exacerbate the problems," said Ken Pollack, former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council who is now with the Brookings Institution.

Analysts predict that the charter, scorned not only by Sunnis but by Shiite and Kurdish moderates and even some Shiite radicals, is so divisive that it may not even pass in the Oct. 15 referendum. Even if it does, Brown said, it will not improve Iraq's political climate.

"If it passes, we are likely to be in the same political situation we are in right now: A government dominated by Shia religious parties with Sunnis outside the process and continued insurgency," he said.

"It certainly doesn't seem likely to provide the kind of basis for political reconciliation that ... the Bush administration has hoped for."

Government officials in Washington and some military officials in Iraq hope the constitution will be a key step toward curbing the insurgency, which is mostly driven by Sunni Arabs and has killed hundreds of U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis while eroding domestic support for the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"If successful, it would be a repudiation of the insurgents," wrote U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Rob Dolan, a press liaison for the Marines in Anbar province - the volatile Sunni region west of Baghdad - in an e-mail last week. "It may be a pretty big thing."

But the draft constitution already has powerful enemies among the very people Washington had hoped to draw into the political process.

"If the constitution is adopted, it will be over the objections of the Sunni leadership. To expect that to be able to resolve the insurgency is simply unrealistic," said Brown.

Praising the draft constitution, Bush described it as "one that honors women's rights and freedom of religion."

But instead of setting Iraq on the course to Western-style democracy, many analysts - and moderate Iraqis - believe it will pave the way for a country dominated by Islamic laws that would restrict personal freedoms and women's rights.

"I wouldn't talk about a great triumph for democracy as a way to describe this," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a deputy assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs under former President George H. W. Bush.

Sunni leaders, who are afraid a federalist system would leave them isolated in the central four of Iraq's 18 provinces without access to the nation's oil wealth, are encouraging their community to bring down the charter.

"We wanted (the Sunnis) to mobilize politically, but we certainly didn't want them to mobilize politically against the constitution," Mack said.

The document is also uniting Iraqis from different religious backgrounds - but not quite the way the Bush administration would like, analysts said. Last week, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric who led two uprisings against the U.S.-led occupation last year, said they would join the Sunnis to vote against the constitution. Al-Sadr reportedly shares Sunni fears about federalism and fears it could open the door to Iranian influence in the Shiite-dominated south.

On Monday, some of the hundreds of Sunnis protesting the charter in Tikrit carried al-Sadr's portraits.

"Politics makes strange bedfellows," said Mack. "I can see most of the Sunnis voting against this (charter), plus the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, plus moderate-minded, secular-minded Shia and even some Kurds."

If Iraqis reject the constitution in October, it will be a major blow for Bush, who faces waning domestic support for the war and needs to show that he is achieving some successes in Iraq.

But "it wouldn't be a wholly negative development" for the future of Iraq, said Brown.

"Maybe on the second attempt, with different people in the room and perhaps a little bit more relaxed time line, they will do better," he said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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