Delay Sought on Iraqi Constitution

According to the AP, the Iraqi Constitutional Committee is seeking a 30-day delay in submitting the Iraqi constitution:

Under the original deadline, the National Assembly had until Aug. 15 to approve the charter and submit it to a national referendum in mid-October. That formula was strongly supported by the Americans. But major differences remain among the ethnic and religious groups represented on the committee.

This will be a serious setback to the American plans (if true, see below). I was told repeatedly all through July that no delay was forthcoming and that the Iraqis should stick to the schedule because, a U.S. official told me, the Iraqis work best under pressure.

“We have consistently urged all members of the national assembly and the Iraqi government to maintain the time schedule outlined in the TAL,” he told me in early July. “The press of time is always a factor in Iraqi politics,” he continued:

“It was in the Aug. 2004 convening of the national conference, it was again with the preparations for the elections and parties having to make a decision to register and run and their candidates to run. And it will be again, with the constitution. They work best when they’re under a time deadline. It makes it harder, but it’s just the way diplomacy is here.”

“The Americans want to make a quick constitution,” said Mahmoud Othman, Kurdish member of the panel, adding that U.S. officials were putting intense pressure on the drafters. However, he cautioned: “They have a lot of experience in fast food, but they can’t make a fast constitution.”

(Heh. I love Mahmoud. I’ve sometimes heard other reporters refer to him as “Mr. Dial-a-Quote.”)

So this (possible) delay can’t be making anyone smile in the embassy today. Especially because I was told by a high-level U.S. diplomat just yesterday that there would be no delay. Further sticking a finger in the eye of the Americans, the issues gumming up the works—federalism and the role of religion—are the same issues that have been bedeviling the process since the get-go. That means the March-to-July frantic behind-the-scenes work of the embassy to broker a consensus has so far borne little fruit. And that further means the American influence is less than most people think.

Although now that I think about it, my conspiratorial mind comes into play. Perhaps everyone has been reading from the same songbook—no delay, no way—only to spring the holdup on the Iraqi people at the last minute to make it look like the Iraqis have stood up to the Americans, granting the committee more legitimacy among the people who think it’s all being run out of the embassy.

Cunning devils.

But assuming that isn’t the case, federalism is probably the main sticking point. The Sunnis don’t want any form of federalism because they say it will lead to the breakup of the country, but it’s really because they don’t [want] the Kurds and Shi’ites to have oil-rich districts with control of the revenues while they get the western desert. I’ve been out there. It sucks. The Kurds, however, say if they don’t get to keep what they have, and Kirkuk, to boot, there’s going to be a war.

The role of religion has also been a problem, with the religious Shi’ite parties pushing hard for Islam to be “the main source” of legislation and subordinating the rights of women to shari’ah. There are also some drafts of constitutions floating around enshrining the Shi’ite clergy—the merjariyah, of which Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the preeminent member—in a constitutional role, but I don’t think that will make it into the final draft.

I’m of two minds on the delay. On the one hand, I don’t think a 30-day delay will do much to build trust between the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis, which is the biggest problem affecting Iraq these days. A month isn’t enough time for that. On the other hand, perhaps a delay will allow federalism and religion to be crow-barred into position in the document and the trust will just have to come later. Inshallah.

[UPDATE 7:40:36 PM +0300 GMT: Well, well. AFP says non! to the delay, and Reuters says the panel is only “considering” one. At the moment, the U.S. embassy isn’t commenting, but there’s supposed to be a press conference tomorrow morning. I’ve not seen a statement from the embassy commenting on the delay yet, so perhaps this thing will be headed off, after all. I’m sure the Americans kicked it into high gear once the committee signaled a willingness to hang the deadline.

[I should have explained it better above, but the deadline for requesting a delay is tomorrow. It’s possible that they can ask parliament and the presidency council and have it denied. But if they don’t request a delay and can’t get the constitution done by Aug. 15, parliament is dissolved and new elections must be called. So the stakes are pretty high.]