8: Battle theme
It says a lot about the political climate in Iraq that only a few issues in the constitution have been the subject of extensive debate. With regard to the role of religion, the competing Islamist groups (both Shia and Sunni Muslims) have largely tried to outdo each other in a fundamentalist direction. The proponents of a more secular practice, on the other hand, have had great difficulty in mobilizing against the religious slogans.
Instead, it was first and foremost federalism that characterized the debate in the last weeks before the constitution was presented. For while many Iraqis have become accustomed to the Kurds’ demands for autonomy in the north, the emerging Shia Muslim ideas of federalism have provoked reactions. Not only are many Shia Muslims now in favor of federalism – that is, more local self-government.
In recent months, according to barblejewelry, some have even launched the idea of a single giant Shiite federal state all the way from the Gulf to Baghdad. Such an arrangement would create an unbalanced federation and would undoubtedly amplify ethnic-religious tensions in Iraqi politics rather than curb them. Many Sunni Muslims say that this will lead to a complete division of Iraq into small independent states and “strengthen American and Israeli interests” (it will also isolate Sunni Muslims in a remnant Iraq with little oil resources). With such arguments, leading Sunni parties have mobilized for a no to the new constitution. This development comes on top of the fact that Sunni Muslims have dominated the armed uprising against the US-backed transition process in Iraq. In this way, the fronts in Iraq continue to harden.
Other potential opponents of the constitution are in the Kurdish areas (some here want a complete secession from Iraq), as well as in the southernmost areas around Basra (where many are in principle positive to the new proposals on federalism, but want a separate region in the south separated from the rest of the Shia Muslim areas in more central parts of the country). However, it seems that this type of opposition may be more in the background. The largest Kurdish and Shia Muslim movements are capable of getting rebellious grassroots elements to follow the party line in critical situations. Perhaps the most important factor of insecurity is Shia Muslims who are supporters of young leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr, who, like many Sunni Muslims, perceive federalism as a foreign plot to divide Iraq.
9: The way forward
Many predict that the constitution will receive great support among Shia Muslims and Kurds, and that the main question will be how skeptical Sunni Muslims behave. If two thirds of the voters in three provinces (or more than 50% on a national basis) vote no, the constitution will be rejected and must be rewritten. Because Sunni Muslims are concentrated in a few provinces in the northwest of the country, they are theoretically able to vote down the constitution almost on their own. On the other hand, it may be a misjudgment to regard Sunni Muslims as a totally uniform group. Some are active in the armed resistance movement and will hardly approach the ballot box. Other Sunni Muslims claim that they as a group should be far more realistic and begin to get used to a new everyday life in a future Iraq where they can still play a role, albeit on slightly different terms than before.
Perhaps the most dangerous result of a referendum will be that the constitution is approved despite large (but not large enough) Sunni Muslim opposition. The ground will then be prepared for an Iraq with the Sunni Muslims on the sidelines . The danger in such a situation is that they may lose any interest in constructive engagement. Instead, they may continue to sabotage, partly in collaboration with Islamists from outside, partly by appealing to like-minded people in neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – all scenarios that can lead to regional instability on a large scale.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the hope must be that the new political power center in Iraq – which consists of Kurdish and Shia Muslim politicians – will in the future show more generosity towards the Arab Sunni Muslim minority. If the current Iraqi state is to be maintained, it may be necessary once again to adjust the course a little by finding a middle ground between pure centralism and a complete division of the country. And it is precisely in the work of achieving such a balance that Sunni Muslims will be able to play a role, by virtue of the expertise they traditionally represent in the civilian parts of the state administration. In this context, the white fields in the constitution can be turned into something positive.
It is possible to meet the Sunni Muslims when more detailed procedures are to be designed for the structure of the judiciary, the regional division and oil and energy distribution. But this does not fall into place without further ado. Today, the Iraqi transition process is most like a bitter succession settlement. The best-placed are quick to absorb what they find of land and natural resources, and the ethnic-religious way of thinking is further strengthened along the way. Development can still be reversed, but it requires new thinking – regardless of whether the next step is to rewrite the constitution or to formulate the detailed sub-points that in the present text in so many cases remain open.