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Sun 14 Aug 2005 04:00 AM

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A nation in search of a state

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Iraq’s community leaders as they attempt to draft a new constitution. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

A nation in search of a state|~|Nation-200.jpg|~|FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Iraqis mull over a speech on the constitution.|~|This month could be a defining point for Iraq, with the country’s separate communities coming together in an attempt to draft a constitution before their August 15 deadline. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If they succeed in surmounting their differences, they will come one step closer to realising a stable Iraq and in the process quell the current insurgency. But creating a viable framework for the country certainly won’t be easy, and failure could push it, and perhaps the wider region, over the edge.

“If there isn’t a strong constitution [Iraq] will definitely disintegrate,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group. “With the constitution there is a better chance of fighting the disintegration.”

Of all the countries in the Arab world, no country has a bloodier history than that of Iraq’s. No revolution has been as treacherous as that of Iraq’s in 1958, which saw the country’s British appointed monarch King Faisal II butchered and his body and those of many others in the royal family displayed in public. His prime minister Nuri Al Said also suffered a grizzly fate.

Between the demise of the Ottoman Empire and this traumatic juncture in its history, the country had struggled with British rule. The British had imposed their own leader on the Iraqi people and had defined the country’s political and constitutional framework.

But this would lead to major revolts against its policies between 1920 and 1922 as the Iraqi people came to resent their brutal exploitation and political repression.

As that period neared its end, the Iraqi people gained their independence in 1932. Their country was carved out of three major provinces — Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Ethnic or sectarianism tension was not as pronounced as it is today. In the run up to all of this, the British placated the Kurds by promising them autonomy at some stage, and they backed the Sunni tribal sheikhs, ruthlessly using force whenever their interests were threatened.

During its nascent days, Iraq was therefore one of the few countries in the Arab world to exhibit the characteristics of a modern nation state, at least on the surface. But deep underneath — as time would prove — lay the seeds of sedition that many would come to exploit over the years and which ultimately culminated in the bloody July revolution of 1958.

“The idea that Iraq at that time had the characteristics of a modern state was based almost entirely on the fact that the British gravitated to the urbanised, secularised Sunni population in Baghdad,” says William Beeman, a professor of anthropology at Brown University. “The British colonists’ own class snobbery made them think of the tribal populations as ‘rabble’.

“Then there was the ‘Mosul problem’, born of seething Kurds who had been completely betrayed and cheated, and which was serious enough a rebellion to have caused the fall of a British prime minister. In short, the idea of the Iraqi state as a placid, modern place where ethnic groups all got along is, I would say, a total myth, perhaps concocted to justify the continual presence of the British Army until the 1950s when their puppet ruler was thrown out in a coup,” explains Beeman.

Adnan Pachachi, an Iraqi foreign minister in the 1960s and a former member of the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council, says Iraqis can learn from their past. “The whole society was built on mutual tolerance and understanding. Unfortunately this seems to be missing now,” he says.

Indeed, the situation looks very different today. Violence has worsened and civil war is very much on the horizon as the August 15 deadline for the 71-member commission to draft a constitution looms.

Saddam Hussein's regime cruelly repressed the country’s Shiites — which account for 60% of the Iraq’s population — and mercilessly killed thousands of Kurds in the 1980s with mustard gas. The demise of the Baathist regime has also ignited an unquenchable thirst among the Kurds, which account for 25% of the country’s population, to finally realise their independence — a fundamental point they wish to dignify in an emerging constitution. But the newly found freedom has also accentuated the fervour of Shiites who want religion to be the source upon which the constitution is based.

Massoud Barzani, who serves as president of the Kurds, has made clear in no uncertain terms that the Kurds will not accept Islam as a cornerstone of the new constitution. He has also stated that they will not compromise on their demands — which also include a federal Iraq and a favourable resolution for them in the tustle for control over the oil-rich centre of Kirkuk.

Add to this the aspirations of other ethnic groups — the Christians, Assyrians, Yezidis, Marsh Arabs, Baha’is, Mandaeans and Shabaks — and the unabated violence wreaked by a stubborn insurgency, and it becomes all too clear why drafting a constitution will be no easy task.

In the midst of it all, America’s Ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad has publicly pressured leaders to reach a consensus, so that the political process laid down by the US before the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004 remains on track, and general elections take place this December. This does little to assuage questions about the independence of those leading the country.

Nevertheless, there are some positive signs. As politicians convened last week in the eleventh hour, to draft the constitution that would take the political process forward, 15 Sunni leaders that had initially boycotted the talks appeared to have come around.

“It is not clear that they are truly representative of the Sunni community—since they didn’t vote [in the January elections] we don’t know whom the Sunnis would have elected as leaders. But they seem somewhat representative as they haven’t been denounced either,” says Hiltermann.

“Their demands are basically red lines. The main red line for them [the Sunnis] is the issue of federalism, where in addition to the Kurdish region; which everyone accepts, there will be other regions,” explains Hiltermann, in reference to suspicions among Sunnis that the Shiites will set up a region of their own in the south that will control the country’s oil resources and the distribution of oil.

Pachachi, who led the Assembly of Independent Democrats, one of the electoral coalitions that participated in the January National Assembly legislative elections, says Sunnis are playing an active role.

“Sunnis are participating in the formation of the constitution. They want to have greater participation. The main thing really is the elections that will be held at the end of this year. This is it really. We hope to have a far more inclusive election and therefore it will result in a far more representative legislature,” Pachachi explains.

“We hope that if there is agreement on the constitution then we can have a referendum and the elections. If there is no agreement on the constitution we are going to have new elections for a new national assembly, which would be more representative than the present one and hopefully it will be able to draft a constitution that is a result of mutual accommodation,” adds Pachachi.

The former diplomat, who was nominated to become Iraq’s president but declined to accept the post, says that for success to be achieved, there “must be a degree of tolerance and certain basic fundamental freedoms must be observed, otherwise society cannot stay intact. We must learn how to live with each other”.

But Shiite insistence on Islam being the main source of legislation in Iraq has alarmed Sunnis, Kurds and women who fear their rights will be curtailed if those plans materialise.

If the proposed constitutional language is adopted, the lives of women, who make up around 60% of the country’s population, will be severely affected. That prospect has caused many Iraqi women to take to the streets in protest. More than 70 leading Iraqi women and men — including members of the Constitutional Committee — have called for equal rights and recommended that 40% of the new legislature be reserved for women.

“It’s almost inevitable that women’s rights are going to suffer. The question really is how much and that depends in part on the language of the constitution and the implementing mechanism set up in the constitution,” says Hiltermann.

Pachachi, meanwhile, is adamant that the process will only succeed if an atmosphere of tolerance is fostered. “Women have to have absolute equality with men," he says. “We cannot really compromise on this issue,” he adds.

Some observers have drawn parallels between what is taking place in present-day Iraq and Lebanon, whose constitution was drafted by the French in 1943. They argue there is symmetry between the US experiment in Iraq and the sectarian problems of Lebanon, a by-product of the legacy of French rule.

“We have to be careful with historical analogies because they are never a perfect fit. Sectarianism was started under the previous regime. While the Baath party was open to everybody, Saddam defined the nature of the regime by basing it on his own plan and setting up separate security agencies that were rooted mostly in Sunni Arab tribal areas,” says Hiltermann.

He adds: “Sectarianism started well before 2003, but it is absolutely correct to say the Americans have exacerbated this. The first example of that is the establishment of the Interim Governing Council in July 2003 where an attempt was made to have representatives of all communities of Iraq to be present. There is logic to that and some justification to that. It was a substitute for popular elections [and] it became really the basis, the foundation for sectarian logic that has pervaded Iraq since then."

Hiltermann, however, is in favour of what the Americans are doing in Iraq now — what is known as affirmative action in the US — an effort to try to undo some of the effects of polarising the country early on in the occupation and bring Sunnis back into the fold of Iraqi society.

“If the US excludes Sunni Arabs then Iraq would be on the path of civil war. The real question is can this logic be terminated and substituted by politics that is truly democratic and based on political parties that have national programmes than sectarian or ethnically based programmes,” Hiltermann explains.

Pachachi also doesn’t believe the comparison of Iraq with Lebanon is entirely accurate. “I don’t think they [the Americans] are the ones who made it [sectarian], unfortunately it’s what some Iraqi political parties have insisted on from the beginning. The Americans, in fact, were rather uncomfortable with it,” he says.

As the entire process continues to unfold, it is clear that success hinges on the likelihood of all the ethnic and sectarian communities taking part in the negotiations. More importantly, that each community makes the compromises that are necessary and to bridge the sectarian and ethnic gaps that have emerged in the country over the past three years.

That said, there is still no guarantee that this would succeed in keeping Iraq together. “Its very difficult to be optimistic at this stage. We should try everything to avoid conflict in Iraq because not only will it tear apart the country, but it will start tearing apart the region,” says Hiltermann. “There are so many forces now tugging at the centre that it may disintegrate regardless."


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