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The Unholy War to Kill Iraq's Constitution By: Nimrod Raphaeli
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The draft Iraqi constitution that will be submitted to a referendum on October 15, 2005 comprises 139 articles, only two of which are sources of major controversy. The articles that have remained the cause of considerable tension between the three leading ethnic groups in Iraq – the Shi'a, the Sunnis, and the Kurds – are No. 3 (which deals with the Arab identity of Iraq) and No. 115 (which establishes the principle that one or more governorates could establish a federated region.)

After many failed attempts to reach a compromise on these issues, the majority in the National Assembly – made up almost exclusively of Shi'ite and Kurd representatives – have voted to submit the draft constitution for referendum with only minor changes in its language. The Sunnis, who boycotted the elections to the National Assembly on January 30, 2005, and who are being referred to as the "absentees (al-gha'iboon)" are mobilizing any support they can muster to defeat the constitution in the forthcoming referendum. Their threats are also backed by the insurgency which they support.

Procedural and Substantive Opposition to the Draft Constitution

In their effort either to force the other parties to rephrase the controversial articles or, if necessary, to defeat the constitution altogether, the Sunnis are using two sets of arguments –procedural and substantive.

The procedural argument is two-fold. The first aspect of this argument is that the constitution drafting commission has adopted the principle that consensus, rather than a majority vote of its members, should guide its deliberations and final conclusion. By ignoring the reservations and objection of its Sunni members, the Commission has, in fact, violated that principle.

The second aspect of the procedural argument is legalistic. As stated by a Sunni member of the drafting commission, Hussein Al-Faluji, the National Assembly has violated a key provision of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which serves as Iraq's interim constitution, by its act of extending the deadline for the submission of the draft constitution which was originally scheduled for August 15. [1] It is perhaps ironic that the Sunnis, who have often condemned the American invasion of Iraq and disassociated themselves from anything to do with the occupation administration, and who have vigorously rejected the TAL, now invoke one of its provisions to support their position.

Substantive Opposition to the Draft Constitution

Two questions are raised by the Sunnis: First, whether all of Iraq, or only the Arab population of Iraq, as was originally stated stated, is part of the Arab nation. Second, whether the form of regime which is being shaped since the overthrow of Saddam should have a centralized or a federal government structure.

The first part of Article 3 characterized Iraq as an integral part of the Islamic world. On that part there is no disagreement, since the overwhelming majority of the Iraqis are Muslims. However, the second part of the article stipulates that [only] the "Arab people" of Iraq are part of the Arab nation. This provision was meant to satisfy primarily the Kurds and, to a lesser extent the Turkmen, who claim not to be Arabs and refuse to be associated with the "Arab nation." Apart from the fact that the Kurds are not ethnically Arabs, they would argue that the greater Arab nation has ignored their plight and suffering for decades and that no Arab country came to their help when Saddam Hussein was gassing their people. The revised Article 3 retains the part pertaining to Iraq as part of the Muslim world but adds that Iraq "is a founding and active member in the Arab League and committed to its charter." This is the only meaningful change that was made in the draft constitution to placate the Sunnis.

The second substantive issue has to do with the proposed federal government structure for Iraq. However, the most alarming article for the Sunnis is Article 115, which grants the right to one or more governorates to federalize, similar to the Kurdish region.

While there is a national consensus about granting the Kurdish region a federal status, the Sunnis are strongly opposed to a broadly designed federal system that would allow the Shi'ite governorates to get organized into a federal structure. Those opposed to federalism in Iraq see a constitutional license for creating independent federal structures in Iraq as a prescription for the Balkanization of the country or, worse yet, for the country's fragmentation into small states leading, ultimately to civil war and chaos.

The Sunni position on federalism must be seen within the context of economic reality. A federated region in the north and another federated region in the south, each controlling vast amount of oil reserves, while the four primarily Sunni provinces are left with a vast area of desert, will deal the Sunnis a double injury: Not only will they lose the extensive political power which they have exercised over Iraq for 80 years, but they will be left with an impoverished territory making them almost totally dependent on the generosity or good will of their more prosperous compatriots.

The Fear of Iranian Domination

The Sunnis are also concerned that a federated Shi'ite south will come under Iranian hegemony. The two leading Shi'ite parties in government, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Al-Da'wa parties, are led by politicians who returned to Iraq after a long exile in Iran with which they maintain a close relationship. Many segments of southern Iraq are already under enormous Iranian influence, and its population is increasingly acting in the mold of Islamist Iran. One of the most moderate Sunni politicians, Dr. Adnan Al-Pachachi, expressed the concern that federalism in the south will allow unlimited Iranian penetration. [2]

The Sunni Organization

To solidify the Sunni forces opposed to the constitution, the major Sunni organizations, including the Islamic Party, the Association of [Iraqi] Sunni Clerics, the Sunni Endowment Organization (waqf), and the 15 Sunni members of the constitution drafting committee, among others, created the National Dialogue Council (majlis al-hiwar al-watani) headed by Saleh Al-Mutlak. Al-Mutlak, who has become a frequent and favorite performer on many pan-Arab televisions, and in particular Al-Jazeera TV, and a spokesman often quoted in the Iraqi and Arab press, has threatened to derail the process of ratifying the constitution either by mobilizing 51% of the entire Iraqi voters or by mobilizing two-thirds of the voters in three provinces. [3] In these circumstances, the support of Muqtada Al-Sadr, who can provide bundles of votes in Sadr City (Baghdad) and in other major Shi'ite cities in the center and south of Iraq, becomes crucial.

The Unholy Alliance

Somewhat unexpectedly, the Sunnis were joined in their rejection of the constitution on grounds of its sponsoring of federalism by no other than the young extremist Shi'i cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose capacity for mischief, and even violence, has been exceeded only by his frequent and vehement denunciation of the American occupation of Iraq. Al-Sadr's political position places him apart from the mainstream of Shi'ite religious and political establishment, which supports the constitution, and often close to that of the Sunnis.

Muqtada Al-Sadr is a scion of one of Iraq's most prominent religious families - a family claiming to be descended from the house of Prophet Muhammad. [4] Al-Sadr, or, at least, his people, were accused of the murder of Hojjat Al-Islam Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, another scion of a distinguished religious family, shortly after he returned to Najaf from exile in Britain in April 2003. Al-Sadr has built his own militia, the Mahdi Army, rumored to be supported by Iran. He challenged the control of Ayatollah Al-Sistani over the Shi'ite holy sites in Najaf and Karbala, and has established a bastion of religious radicalism in Sadr City (previously Saddam City). Al-Sadr City, an almost two million-person slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, is his base of support as well as his base of operation against the government and the occupation forces. Like the Sunnis, Al-Sadr rejects the principle of federalism because, he has said, it would lead to the dismemberment of Iraq. But he is also opposed to a constitution that is not guided by the Shari'a, or Islamic law. [5]

Escalating the Conflict

While the negotiation on the final version of the draft constitution between the three major groups was ongoing, Muqtada Al-Sadr decided to give his objections to the constitution a violent twist. He summoned his Mahdi Army to the streets of the holy city of Najaf, creating conflict that quickly spilled over into eight other cities. Street fighting broke out between the Mahdi army and Al-Badr militia of the two major Shi'ite political parties – the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Al-Da'wa Party whose leader, Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari, is the prime minister of Iraq.

Behind the ostensible reason for Al-Sadr's objection to federalism stands a more profound political and even theological reason. It is the struggle for the control over the allegiance of the Shi'a community of Iraq, between the Iraqi-born nationalist Muqtada Al-Sadr who is very proud of his Iraqi roots and fame, and Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani [6] who speaks Arabic with an Iranian accent and has refused an offer to become an Iraqi citizen. Al-Sistani has remained in the background, although enormously influential, in keeping with the traditional view of al-Hawza al-samita (the silent Hawza which is the Shi'ite center of scholarship and authority); Al-Sadr represents the opposite view of al-Hawza al-natiqa (the spoken Hawza) which should, in his view, not eschew controversial political issues. Al-Sadr's conflict with the Iranian-born Ayatollah, and his denunciation of the occupation, have earned him considerable popularity among many young Iraqis across the religious and ethnic spectrum.

While Al-Sadr has so far refused to state what he might recommend to his followers in terms of voting in the referendum, he has been quite vocal in calling on them to register to vote which, coincidentally, is also the position of the Sunnis. The way he chooses to direct his vote and those of his followers may ultimately have considerable consequences for the referendum. Taking account of his popularity among many segments of the Iraqi population, the various Sunni organizations are doing their utmost to get him on board.

Demonstration Against the Draft

Under the auspices of the Organization of Sunni Scientists, the people of Tikrit, Saddam's former stronghold, demonstrated at the end of August against the constitution while carrying the images of Saddam and those of Muqtada Al-Sadr, [7] in a perfect manifestation of the adage that politics makes strange bedfellows. The irony of it all is that many members of Al-Sadr's family, including his father Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq Al-Sadr and his two brothers, were killed in 1999 by Saddam's agents. His uncle, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, was executed by the Saddam regime in 1980 after calling for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iraq. [8]


While it is possible that the various antagonists may yet find an accommodation on the controversial issues before the October 15 referendum, the Sunnis and whoever may join their ranks and their cause may not be able to muster the vote to defeat the constitution.

The supporters of federalism in Iraq would argue that it is the most appropriate form of government given the country's demographic, ethnic, religious and geographical position, and that it will ensure a fair distribution of wealth to all while permitting the various ethnic groups to retain their unique religious rites, culture and even language.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] http://almendhar.com/arabic/index.aspx (August 26, 2005).

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, August 30, 2005.

[3] Al-Zaman, September 7, 2005.

[4] For more details see Nimrod Raphaeli, "Understanding Muqtada al-Sadr," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. XI No. 4, Fall 2004, pp.33-42 http://www.meforum.org/article/655.

[5] Al-Sabah, September 2, 2005.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, August 29, 2005.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, August 29, 2005.

[8] Al-Hayat, August 26, 2005.

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