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Analysis: Sunnis Put Spoke In Iraqi Wheel

File image of a middle-class Sunni Baathist family fleeing as Baghdad fell in 2003.

Washington (UPI) Aug 30, 2005
"We are the sons of Mesopotamia, land of the prophets, resting place of the holy imams, the leaders of the civilization and the creators of the alphabet, the cradle of arithmetic." So reads the ringing language of the Iraqi draft constitution submitted Sunday to the country's National Assembly.

President George Bush had high praise for the completion of the document, and from his vacation villa in Barbados, Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "an important and historic achievement."

If it was not on the level of creating the alphabet or inventing math, drafting a new constitution seven months after the Iraqi election and only two months after the process started against a background of insurgent violence is a landmark of sorts.

Referring to the fact that the Sunni Arab minority rejected the new text, Bush remarked that the American constitution "was not unanimously received" either. He could have added that it took America's founding fathers considerably longer than two months to draft their charter.

But despite the facade of official American optimism, the current development has the makings of the Bush administration's worst nightmare. Whether Iraq's new constitution is a landmark on the road to a stable democracy, or to a dead end will be determined by the Iraqis in a referendum next October; and success is anything but a forgone conclusion.

The document has the backing of the Shiite Arabs, who make up 60 percent of the population, and the Kurds (20 percent). Sunni negotiators are holding out because many of their people oppose some of its key provisions, notably the fact that the document calls for a federal state decentralizing power from Baghdad to the regions, and what they see as unfairness in the provisions for the distribution of Iraq's oil revenues. Over the weekend, Shiite and Kurdish drafters made some adjustments to the text, but failed to create political consensus.

At about the same time that Iraq's President Jalal Talabani was announcing to the press the completion of the constitution outside the National Assembly, round the corner one of the Sunni negotiators, Sheik Abdul Nasser al Janabi was denouncing the text in a written statement.

"There is no consensus on the text as a whole and therefore it must be regarded as illegal," he said. "We decided to reject the articles that undermine Iraq's territorial integrity, the unity of the Iraqi people, and its identity."

Sunni resistance is not surprising. The federal system, a mechanism to satisfy Kurdish insistence on retaining the autonomy they have enjoyed since the 1991 Gulf War, would marginalize the four Sunni-controlled provinces.

Furthermore, Article 110 of the document channels the country's oil wealth towards the Kurdish north and the Shiite south where the oil fields are located, at the expense of the dustbowl Sunni lands in the center of the country.

The Sunnis, who had boycotted the December elections for an interim government, were given an important say in the constitution talks at the insistence of Washington. American emphasis on inclusiveness had several objectives.

One was the hope that, by involving the Sunnis in the political process, the Sunni-backed insurgency would decline. The second was the calculation that the more secular Sunni minority would join forces with the Kurds to act as a brake on Shiite ambitions of creating an Islamic state.

The split over the 39-page document, which many predict will lead to an upsurge of insurgent violence against the government, is a setback to the Bush administration's hopes of an early start to withdrawing U.S. troops from the region. U.S. Ambassador Zalmau Khalilzad was quoted as saying Monday that he expects "terrorists and extremists will try their best to intimidate people...and to encourage opposition to this draft."

Over the next six weeks five million copies of the draft will be printed and distributed as the Shiite-controlled government embarks on a crucial campaign to win a "yes" vote in the referendum. Numerically, Shiites and Kurds combined can muster enough votes to barrel it through, but the system in place has given the Sunnis a fatally decisive edge.

All it needs for the constitutional referendum to be derailed in October is for the draft document to be rejected by at least two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's provinces -- and the Sunnis are the majority in four provinces. In that worst-case -- but currently very possible -- scenario, it will be back to square one.

So that a day that was supposed to be, according to Washington's vision, an important step towards defining the new Iraq, may become a new setback for the sons of Mesopotamia -- and the United States.

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Dohuk City, Iraq (UPI) Aug 30, 2005
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