Six Weeks to Go!

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go (more or less) until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter.

There will be 15 Sunnis on the committee, picked mainly by tribal sheikhs and other respected men, and another 10 Sunni “advisors” to the committee, accounting for almost 36 percent of the 70-person committee. (There are several subcommittees working away on specific sections of the draft, but I don’t have any data on those bodies.)

This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones. At least as far as the makeup of the committee goes.

“If we were talking about ministries, names might be more important,” he said, as quoted by the New York Times. “But since it’s a committee, having the views is more important than the names.”

I’ve talked with others, close to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other Shi’ite movers and shakers, and they’re of the same mind. Some of these men are optimistic—such as the advisor to the prime minister I spoke with—while others are not. One influential Shi’a leader, who never fled Iraq during the Saddam years doesn’t think the constitution will be done on time. The other Shi’a leader, who did, is concerned that the deadline will be met, but the outcome will be less than desirable—at least for secular Iraqis.

(I’m not mentioning names because that was the deal I made with them. I hope you’ll trust me enough that these men are players, they know what they’re talking about and that they’re close to the action.)

There are a number of obstacles to making the Aug. 15 deadline, however. They are:

  1. The role of Islam in legislation;
  2. The status of Kirkuk;
  3. How much autonomy will be given to the provinces.

These were all predicted long ago, and nothing new has developed the change the issues confronting Iraq. The religious Shi’ites in charge of the government—Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and others—are close to Iran and want a more Islamist government, maybe not as severe as Tehran’s wilayat al-faqih, but certainly more Islamic than Iraqis are used to. They want Islam to be the source of legislation instead of a source of legislation.

The Kurds are, somewhat predictably, throwing a spanner in the works by insisting that status of Kirkuk be settled before the constitution is drafted, while the Shi’ites want to put off the idea until after the constitution is approved. The trouble is, the Kurds won’t approve the constitution in the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum if Kirkuk is left up in the air. They don’t really trust Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs to deal with them fairly on this emotional issue, so they’re holding out the threat of not approving the constitution as a cudgel to get their way now. Which is what they always do, and it leads to some serious brinkmanship. I suspect the Americans will step in at some point and assure the Kurds they have their back if they’ll just yield on this issue.

And as for autonomy, oh boy. This is a hot issue, and there’s a new wrinkle. Secular Shi’ites in the south, led by a Baqr Yassin, have started a push toward making the southern three provinces of Basra, Amara and Nasariyah into an autonomous zone called “Sumer,” similar to the arrangement the Kurds have now. He’s calling for local control of resources—including the vast oil reserves there—and some kind of control of military units in the region. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Jaafari crowd are opposed to such an idea, saying such a development would pose a threat to the unity of Iraq.

There are three other reason for their opposition: Turkey, Syria and especially Iran. A federal Iraq, with strong provincial governments based on ethnic or sectarian lines is seen as a threat in those three countries who all have restive Kurdish populations that have been hankering for autonomous regions of their own in line with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran, especially, would face a difficult situation—well, difficult for the mullahs—because it’s incredibly diverse. Persians make up 51 percent, Azeri 24 percent, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8 percent, Kurds 7 percent, Arabs 3 percent, Lur, Baluch and Turkmen 2 percent each and “other” make 1 percent. If “Sumer” became a reality alongside an autonomous Kurdistan—each with their own sources of petro-wealth—the Arab population of Khuzestan just across the Persian/Arabian Gulf would likely try to join them or form their own ethnic enclave. You’re looking at a scenario of a Balkanized Middle East.

The question you have to ask is why are secular Shi’ites pushing for Sumer? And why is Baqr Yassin, a former Ba’athist opposed to Saddam Hussein and allied with the Syrian branch of the party, the man to lead the movement? Because the secular Shi’ites in the south are scared to death of Iran and its suffocating brand of Islam. Already Basra, which I’m told used to be quite a party town, is populated by black-sheathed women and no liquor stores, cinemas or anything else secular Iraqis enjoy. Militias such as the Badr Organization—formerly commanded by al-Hakim, now head of SCIRI—which fought alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) control the cops. Freelance vice and morality squads roam the streets. And this is all at the urging of Iran, which has deeply infiltrated its neighbor. The old Ba’athist Yassin is fighting the Iran-Iraq war all over again—as are many of the Ba’athist insurgents who strike at Jaafari’s Shi’ite government because, they say, “It’s Iranian.” And it’s why Adnan al-Dulaimi, the custodian of Iraq’s waqf and who claims to speak for several insurgent groups, calls for Sunni participation in Iraqi politics so they can combat shu’ubiyyah, a racist term favored by Ba’athists that basically calls Iraqi Shi’ites “Persians”—although “dirty Persians” might be more accurate in its interpretation. This has enraged my Shi’ite sources.

I can’t speak to the truth of such charges. I believe that Iran is deeply, deeply involved in a great deal of mischief from the head of the Gulf all the way up to Baghdad. But men who have to know what is going on because they can get killed if they don’t are worried about the future, and what kind of country Iraq will become.

In end, it may not matter who’s on the committee to write the constitution if the three main groups can’t see past their self-interests—or their patrons’.