Saturday, August 27, 2005

Charter Concerns, not Despair

Friday’s dramatic finish to the Iraqi constitutional/charter negotiations is already generating a slew of articles that are alarmist in tone and content. That’s too bad. While there are reasons to be concerned, this is not a dead end to democracy in Iraq.

In a trilateral process between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, the interim government had stalled on crafting a new constitution. Three issues, federalism and Islamism, and de-Baathification held up the process, with Arab Sunnis objecting to the preferences of the Shiites. Yesterday with the Sunnis on the sidelines Shia and Kurd essentially sealed the deal.

Critics here have loudly pointed out how this poses horrendous problems for the future of Iraq. While it certainly poses some challenges, things are not as bad as the wailing of the banshees might indicate.
The problems all revolve around the questions of the distribution of power and wealth in a future Iraq. Federalism could theoretically lead to two substantially autonomous regions with control of most Iraq’s oil; one Kurdish in the north, another Shiite in the south. Sunnis fear that they will be excluded from oil wealth and left in control of a few meager provinces. In addition the possibility of an Iranian influenced Shiite southland is daunting to Sunni and westerner alike.

Islamism presents a further obstacle. The Shiites without Kurdish objection have pushed for a more Islamic basis for the law then the Sunnis (or we Americans) are truly comfortable with. Iraqi Sunnis, after 25 years of empowerment under Saddam’s secular rule, have mostly fallen away from rigid Koranic adherence.

The charter now accepted by Shiite and Kurd allows for using Islam as a main for the law. It allows consideration of Sharia, for all family law decisions, which include marriage and divorce issues. And it provides for the inclusion of Muslim clerics on the independent supreme court. This is problematic for the secular Sunnis, and again raises the specter of Iranian style theocracy gaining too strong a foothold in Iraq; especially since the Shiites look to their Iranian educated clerics for leadership.

But there are reasons to believe all is not lost. There are countervailing forces to all of these trends. Not the least of which is that a charter was negotiated at all. And for now, the Sunnis have not been shrilly rejecting it.

On the question of federalism, while there is certainly a worst case scenario to consider, involving the breakup of Iraq, with a Shiite south becoming an Iranian annex, it’s most unlikely. Autonomy, in Iraq has its limits. The Shiites while religiously akin to the Iranians are still ethnically Arabs. Historically they have rejected Persian cultural hegemony in the region. While there are political divisions between the two sects in Iraq, there are cultural, linguistic, economic and even tribal ties. The last is not to be underestimated. Tribes still form an important social and economic institution especially outside the cities, and some tribes have members of both sects. Tribal identification is still a primary social marker, and the culturally Persian Iranians have no access.

The Kurds too require for their survival a brake on autonomy. While they enjoy considerable success at managing their own affairs, running the safest richest provinces today, they need the rest of Iraq. The reason for this is Turkey.

While 5 million Iraqi Kurds enjoy self government, 14 million more in Turkey do not. An additional 6 million Kurds live in Iran and Syria. While Iraqi Kurds would ideally seek a single nation encompassing the entire homeland range of the Kurds, these three regional powers are all firmly opposed to ceding territory to a new nation of potentially 25 million.

Turkey with the largest territory and largest population is particularly vehement about heading off Kurdish independence, in any form. Turkey also has the best military in the region. The Iraqi Kurds know this, and will count on remaining part of a unified Iraqi nation out of self preservation.

On the Islamist front, it is again the Kurds who give hope. While Sunnis object to the inclusion of Muslim provisions in the constitution, the Kurds have not. This is not because the Kurds are any more religious then the Sunnis. The Kurds are predominantly Sunni themselves. And as a society they are about as secular as their Arab co-religionists.

While their already established limited autonomy may make them less afraid of encroaching fundamentalism, there is another factor. The fight over Religious legal precepts is more about simple Sunni versus Shiite power wrangling. As such the Kurds stood aside and let the Shiites have this fight.
That will not necessarily always be the case. Sunnis and Kurds have common ground as fellow members of the Sunni sect, and as a combined minority, of just over a third of the population. The Kurds and the Shiites share a history of oppression at Sunni Arab hands, and a commitment to preventing that from recurring. The Shiites and Sunnis share a language a culture and an Arab identity as well as tribal ties.

This sets up an interdependence of interests. In this round the Kurd’s goals coincided with the Shiites on enough issues, especially federalism. In the future they are likely to align with the Sunnis on others. While the Shiites have a near two thirds majority, they only control half of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. This sets the Sunnis and Kurds up as natural allies on some issues.

While the Sunnis only control three provinces, these include major cities which if the rebellion can be curbed, will again be important economically and politically. And the central location of these provinces links the Shia south with the Kurdish North, neither of which truly wants to stand alone against the larger powers on its border.

The key question is the insurgency. Having won this round, it would be wise for the Shiites to throw Sunni leaders some sort of political bone before October’s ratifications. With three provinces of Sunni majority, the Sunnis are in a position to deflect the constitution. Ratification can be blocked by a two thirds negative vote in exactly three provinces. While it remains in question whether those provinces would all vote 2/3 negative, it is too possible for the Sunnis to manipulate the vote with threats and violence.

We will have to see. As long as the Shiites reach out, or the Kurds, or both, things may be better than the pundits are calling them. Ratification and then new elections lie ahead. Democracy seems to be struggling down the birth canal. As a soldier liable to return, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

See also Right Wing Nuthouse on this.

See also Right Wing News.

See also Betsy's Page.


Blogger NYgirl said...

Execellent article. One of the best I've read. Very few people in America understand the power of ethnic group & tribal affiliation in the Middle East.

Also, the Sunnis are a minority, they have to learn to live with others. Until now they have been the dominant group & they don't want to lose their former priviledges. Hopefully, this will teach them not to be bullies & play nice with the others.

Sun Aug 28, 12:23:00 AM 2005  

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