Constitutional Con?

BAGHDAD—Hello all. We haven’t spoken in a while. I wish I could give you a good reason for that, but I can’t. After Marla’s death, I just didn’t feel like blogging for a while. It’s not like there’s been a dearth of material, however. A new government, a hell of a lot of violence, allegations of prior corruption, massive military operations… And that’s just in the last month or so. Iraq’s a busy place.

But this week, the new Iraqi government established the Constitutional Committee that will draft Iraq’s permanent constitution. It’s made up of 55 members of parliament that didn’t get tapped for Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s cabinet—which took way too long to get off the ground. Three months? I mean, c’mon. The government expires, in theory, at the end of this year anyway. These guys’ main job is supposed to be making sure all the checks get signed and the writing of a constitution. And yet, they’re acting like a permanent government, arguing over cabinet posts and putting more thought into their own political futures than the country’s. This pisses Iraqis off.

And speaking of political futures, Iyad Allawi is considering taking the chairmanship of the committee, although one of his aides told me that he’s really preparing for the next election. I told the aide that I thought being chairman of the committee might be a nice platform from which to run. True, admitted the aide, but if the process falls apart, Allawi will be blamed for that if he’s the chairman. I countered that if the process falls apart, Allawi’s going to have a lot more to worry about than his political viability—and so will Iraq.

Another name being bandied about is Houman al-Hammoudi, a political advisor to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). These two guys are handy symbols for where Iraq may be heading. If Allawi takes the chairmanship, the new constitution will likely have more American input and be more secular. If al-Hamoudi gets it, look for a stronger role for Islam and more influence from Tehran. (SCIRI still has significant ties to the Iranian regime.)

The chairman will be announced today, inshallah, so we’ll get to see where we’re going. [UPDATE 5/16/05 5:32:23 PM: The chairmanship wasn’t announced on Sunday because committee members can’t decide between al-Hammoudi and a Kurdish member.] But, in my opinion, it’s already off to a bad start. There are only two Sunnis on the committee. One suggestion to increase their representation is to shunt them off to a subcommittee ghetto, where they’ll filter up their recommendations to the main committee. Dr. Saleh Mutlak, a member of the National Dialogue Council, the hot, new political group for disenfranchised Sunnis, thinks things might be OK if Allawi is the chairman but if it’s al-Hammoudi, the marginalizing of the religious minority will be complete. This is a recipe for yet more disaster, considering the Sunnis are already suspicious that de-Ba’athification is really code for an anti-Sunni purge.

The new government and the Americans might be wise to listen to Mutlak and his compatriots on the Council. They have good ties to the Iraqi insurgency—the Ba’athists and nationalists, not the jihadis—and they’re looking for a deal. As TIME Magazine reported in February, members of the Ba’athist/nationalist insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. “We are ready,” said a top insurgent negotiator, “to work with you.” The Council is their Sinn Fein.

But talks may have broken down. Mutlak declined to confirm any negotiations, but handed me a statement yesterday that reads, in part:

What we cannot forget is the responsibility for the continuation of casualties that is borne by a blind insistence on a military solution to the insurgency. That military solution, over the course of now two long years, has proven to be clearly unreachable.

The U.S. and its Coalition partners, which created the conditions that prevail in Iraq today by its ill-advised dissolution of the Army and its sweeping de-Ba’athification edicts, should drop its “hands-off”attitude toward negotiations and political solutions and join with all of us, those in the Iraqi government and those who are outside, in the common work of finding a political solution that will end the insurgency, and bring about the new democratic Iraq that we all desire.

This tells me the talks may have broken down and that they’re looking to start them up again. Probably because the Sunnis are worried about Shi’ite revenge squads. One could argue whether they have it coming or not, but that is, in effect, arguing for civil war. So I guess the choices are let the Shi’ites and the Kurds massacre the Sunnis or talk with the former Ba’athists and bring them into the government. Your pick.

And this ties in with my current obsession: how Iraq will reconcile itself with its recent bloody past and the role of the Ba’ath Party. While many Sunni leaders stayed and took part in the regime, the current Shi’ite and Kurdish leadership spent much of the Saddam years in exile—and they have long memories of the oppression of their people by a military largely commanded by Sunni officers. So it’s no surprise that many former members of Saddam’s military think this is not only a political purge, but also a sectarian one. “They do not mean Ba’athists,” said Abu Laith (a pseudonym), a captain from Fallujah in Iraq’s new 8th Mechanized Division. “They mean Sunnis.”

Abu Laith is a former captain in Iraq’s 6th Armored Division, which was based in Basra. He chose not to fight the Americans in March 2003, when they rolled north out of Kuwait. But now he’s ready to take up arms against the new government and the Americans if talks break down and hardliners in the Jaafari government push for a purge of the security forces. “We are professional men and we know how to fight,” he said.

Losing experienced officers like Abu Laith to the insurgency is not something the Americans want to see, which is why they seem to be more open to talks than the Iraqi government. The Jaafari cabinet and the Kurds are not in a forgiving mood for a lot of reasons. But the choices are going to come to down to talking or fighting. Driving the former Ba’athists away from talks and their jobs is inviting catastrophe.

“If the government has 1,000 enemies now, they will have 10,000 enemies,” said Abu Laith. “We are fighting for our lives.”