2nd and Goal

Well, seems I spoke too soon this morning when I said the interim Iraqi constitution would be signed “in a couple of hours.” Five Shi’ite clerics refused to sign the charter today, saying the document didn’t give the Shi’a enough power in a newly sovereign Iraq. Think of this process as Iraqi football — a game where the the rules get rewritten in the fourth quarter by the team that’s furthest ahead. The Shi’a are about to score a touchdown.

Well, seems I spoke too soon this morning when I said the interim Iraqi constitution would be signed “in a couple of hours.” Five Shi’ite clerics refused to sign the charter today, saying the document didn’t give the Shi’a enough power in a newly sovereign Iraq.

Iraqi leaders said the Shiites wanted to strike a provision that would allow a minority of the country’s voters to block the implementation of a permanent constitution, which is to be written next year. And the Shiites are holding out for an expansion of the Iraqi presidency, which, by most accounts, will likely turn out to be held by a Shiite.

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The signing ceremony was cancelled after Shi’ite leaders balked.
The Kurds and Sunni members of the Iraqi Governing Council blasted the Shi’ite decision not to sign as a grab for power, which it is. Instead of a single president and two deputies, as currently outlined in the Transitional Administrative Law as the constitution is called, the Shi’a are asking for a collective presidency of three Shi’a, one Kurd and one Sunni. The Shi’a also, on the word of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani, want to remove safeguards that would give Kurds a veto over the final, permanent charter, which is to be hashed out next year. Today’s draft allowed for two-thirds of voters in any three provinces to veto the permanent charter via a referendum. The Kurds, coincidentally enough, control three provinces in the north of the country.
“Some of these provinces have only 400,000 or 500,000 people,” said Hamed al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the single largest Shi’ite group. “We cannot have that number of people rejecting a constitution for 25 million people.”
Al-Bayati’s got a point. It wouldn’t be hard for the Kurds to stir up trouble when it comes time for the final constitutional negotiations. All that would need to happen would be for the three Kurdish provinces to veto the final document and threaten to declare independence if they don’t get what they want. (And they have the people to do it. Recently, 1.7 million Kurds signed a petition, which was presented the IGC, calling for a referendum on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether it should be part of an Iraqi federal republic or declare independence. There are between 4 million and 5 million Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, so that’s more than 20 percent of the region’s total population.)
Why do this? Because in their heart of hearts, the Kurds want independence. A weak federal republic is seen as but an interim step toward the brass ring — or at least a protection against tyranny by the Arab majority, which the Kurds suffered under for many years. They want the de facto autonomy they’ve attained to be de jure. Hard not to see their point, too.
But a weak federal republic is exactly what the Shi’a don’t want. They, too, suffered under the old regime, and they will launch a jihad before they run the risk of that happening again. And a strong central government under the control of the Shi’ite majority is — in Sistani’s eyes — the surest way to make sure that Shi’a don’t die at the hands of others again.
And the Sunnis? We’ll they’re pretty much screwed no matter what happens. A strong government dominated by Shi’a is likely to be less than receptive to demands from Iraq’s old ruling elite. And a weak government that doesn’t threaten the Kurds — who have their own 70,000-strong peshmerga force to protect themselves, thank you — will be too weak to protect Sunnis if the Kurds or Shi’a decide to take revenge on their old tormentors.
The five members of the Governing Council who refused to sign were Ahmad Chalabi; Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI; Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party; independent Shiite Mouwafak al-Rubaie; and the current council president, Shiite cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloum, who did sign a statement (below) from the Council.
Chalabi has thrown his lot in with Sistani now after having punk’d the Pentagon into knocking out Saddam. No dummy he, Chalabi likely realizes his name is mud around the Defense Department these days. Better to hang with Sistani who, despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, holds all of Iraq’s aces in his flowing sleeves.

Statement from the Iraqi Governing Council
March 6, 2004

After months of in-depth discussion and dialogue the Governing Council reached unanimous agreement to pass an Administrative Law for Iraq in the transitional phase. There is widespread consensus among Governing Council members on the law. But in the past few days a constructive dialogue took place regarding an important sensitive issue.
Since in the new democratic Iraq there are valuable opportunities to exchange views to reach agreement in a democratic climate, the Governing Council has decided to adjourn its sessions for two days to complete the members’ dialogue on that issue.
The Council will reconvene on Monday, March 8, to finalize the issue and sign the law.

Dr. Muhsin Abd Al Hamid
Dr. Muhammad Bahr Al Uloom
Mr. Masood Barzani

Cute! A last-minute power-grab is called “a constructive dialogue.” Frantic, late-night horse-trading sessions are “valuable opportunities to exchange views to reach agreement in a democratic climate.”
In all, I just have to shake my head in grim admiration at how the Iraqi politicians on the IGC have learned cynicism from the masters of it in Washington. Ultimately this walkout has little to do with continuing concerns or “technical matters.” No, I’ll bet the Shi’a realized that with the bombings on Tuesday, they were in a stronger position to demand more power in the Transitional Administrative Law, which is likely to be the baseline for the final constitution. The more they get their way now, the easier it will be to get their way next year.
Think of this process as Iraqi football — a game where the the rules get rewritten in the fourth quarter by the team that’s furthest ahead. The Shi’a are about to score a touchdown.