Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Bridge Not Far Enough?

There was something of a breakthrough in the Iraqi constitution drafting process announced late yesterday (as was noted by reader LH). Credit goes to Zalmay Khalilzad, who has proven his mettle as one of the most competent and skilled appointees of the Bush Administration's foreign policy wing. He may not have achieved the broad consensus he wanted, but he was working with intractable problems and managed to compel at least some compromise. According to the New York Times:

Iraqi political leaders said they had agreed to an important last-minute change in the draft constitution on Tuesday evening in exchange for a promise by some prominent Sunni Arab leaders to give public support to the document in the nationwide referendum on Saturday.

The change would create a panel in the next parliament with the power to propose broad new revisions to the constitution. In effect, the change could give the Sunnis - who were largely shut out of the constitution-writing process - a new chance to help redraft the document after elections in December.[...]

Along with the new constitutional panel, the Iraqi leaders agreed to some smaller changes to the charter, several lawmakers said. At least two of them represented concessions to Sunni demands. One is a moderation of the so-called de-Baathfication process to root out former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from public office, and the other is a clause providing firmer guarantees of Iraq's unity.
It remains to be seen how "important" the Sunni population deems these changes to be and whether or not they will translate into Sunni support for the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum - scheduled for October 15. As far as I can tell, the far more pressing issues deal with the ability of various groups to form near autonomous regions, and how and to what degree the proceeds from oil are divided. These remain unresolved. But at least one Sunni political organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has given their blessing in reaction to the concessions, and there may be more in the wings.

The Iraqi Islamic Party was the only Sunni Arab group involved in the talks, which also included the leaders of Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish political alliances and the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Mr. Makky [a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party] said the party had acted in coordination with another major Sunni group, the Conference of the People of Iraq, which also agreed to change its stance and support the constitution.
My blog mate praktike is correct to point out that some level of skepticism is warranted when assessing the extent to which the Iraqi Islamic Party speaks for the broader Sunni masses.

I think Robert Worth may be a tad too optimistic about the clout that the Iraqi Islamic Party has among Sunni Arabs. After all, they played a remarkably similar interlocuting role during the run up to the January elections, and they were unable to have much if any effect on Sunni Arab turnout. But this is certainly better than nothing--jaw-jaw being better than war-war and whatnot. [emphasis added]
Ultimately, the success of this 11th hour change lies in ability to do just that: encourage more discussion and, hopefully, a greater willingness to forego violence in favor of the nascent political process. At least until round two.

The change would also give Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted elections in January, a significant new motive for participating in politics. The more parliament seats they win in the December elections, the better chance they would have of changing the constitutional provisions they oppose, like allowing for the creation of semiautonomous regions within Iraq.
The down side is that this is really nothing more than a quick fix, a patch on a hemorrhaging artery - but at this point, staunching the bleeding is needed to save the patient so it is, nonetheless, a net positive. If we can get enough Sunnis focused on the political process, we may be able to weaken support for at least some strains of the various insurgencies - in the short term. Unfortunately, engagement in the political process does not necessitate an abandonment of more violent tactics. The various factions are quite capable of employing multiple methods, simultaneously, to achieve their ends.

And even if the Iraqi Islamic Party's endorsement translates into a positive Sunni turnout in favor of the draft constitution, I think that the changes have done little more than kick the constitutional can down the road. The actual modifications (softer de-Baathification rules, a nod to unity) do little to assuage the main concerns that the Sunni population had with the draft - they just memorialize an agreement to talk more, later. And those talks may not necessarily lead to anything of substance.
The constitutional panel would have four months after its creation to propose changes to the document, Mr. Makky said. Those proposed changes would then be voted on by the full assembly, which would have to approve them by a two-thirds majority. The changes would then have to be approved in another popular referendum. [emphasis added]
Therein lies the real problem. Even if the Sunni population supports the constitution in the referendum (or remains indifferent), and then comes out en masse in the December elections, and the Sunnis are able to garner a substantial percentage of seats in the assembly (say, 20-25%), they would still be utterly powerless to change the constitution. While under the rosiest scenario they would have proportional representation on the new constitutional panel, any changes to the actual document would require a two-thirds majority in the assembly, and even the most delusional Sunnis don't believe that they could muster a two-thirds majority via the December elections. They are bound by the fact that, at most, they make up 20-25% of the Iraqi population.

Instead, they will need to rely on a coalition partner(s), and even then, this coalition would have to include substantial numbers of Shiites and Kurdish politicians. That is an extremely unlikely scenario given the historical, and ongoing, hostilities and the tendency (thus far) of Iraqi politicians and voters to identify strongly with ethnic and sectarian roots.

In other words, any objections that the Sunnis have to the constitution, as is, are unlikely to be remedied by the reconvening of a constitutional panel. At the end of the day, the Shiites and Kurds are holding all the cards. So, the constitutional draft is probably not going to be altered by the new panel unless the Shiites and Kurds agree. Their unwillingness to compromise further could mean that this attempt to woo the Sunnis away from an embrace of violence will ultimately fail - even if delayed by a couple of months. The same impasse that exists today will re-emerge after the December elections, without any new means to reconcile the differences. Only then, we will have milestones to point to if political cover for withdrawal is what we're hunting. Let's hope it's not.

(cross posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

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