Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Mend In Time

While my overall record for accuracy in prognostication was slightly exaggerated (only slightly though), I, unfortunately, might have been more correct about the constitution amending process than I would have liked. Back in early October, I discussed the 11th hour deal Zal Khalilzad managed to extract prior to the nationwide vote on the Iraqi constitution slated for later that month. Khalilzad's compromise was an agreement by the relevant parties (Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds) to form a panel tasked with suggesting amendments to the constitution that could be enacted later in January or February - after the national referendum approved the then existing draft.

The creation of the panel was a move made to placate Sunni fears over certain provisions in the draft (oil revenue sharing/control, the ease in establishing near-autonomous provinces, etc.). The problem I noted with the Zal plan was that, due to the votes needed to approve any such ex post facto amendments (a two-thirds majority in parliament and a majority in a national referendum), the ability of the Sunnis to satisfy their concerns would still be contingent on them getting enough Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers/voters to agree. Here's part of what I wrote:

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 Shiite 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.
Now (via Swopa) we get this from the New York Times:

The leader of Iraq's most powerful party indicated today that his group would block substantive changes to the country's new constitution, despite a promise to Sunnis to consider amendments.

Last summer, as Sunni Arabs protested vehemently against the proposed constitution, the Shiite and Kurd leaders who dominated its drafting promised there would be a four-month window for amending the document following the formation of a new government.

But Abdul Azziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, the most influential group in the ruling Shiite coalition, today said that "the first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution," according to The Associated Press.

"This constitution was endorsed by the Iraqi people," he said, during a speech in honor of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Doesn't sound like the UIA is in the mood to compromise and make concessions. The most optimistic reading would be that this is strong language intended to frame the debate that will decide the nature of the eventual amendments. But unless "substantive" changes are made, such amendments won't be worth much anyway - so any strong arm negotiating could backfire. Another possibility is that Hakim's words lack the support of the broader Shiite coalition. This bit from the Times piece, also flagged by Swopa, suggests otherwise:

Mr. Hakim appeared to rule out in particular any change in the constitution's provisions allowing the creation of strong regional provinces, a point that had angered many Sunnis.

"It is our responsibility to form Baghdad provinces and southern Iraq provinces," Mr. Hakim said.
That last part, about "Baghdad provinces" may be the bone thrown to Moqtada al-Sadr in order to secure his cooperation with the UIA, and with Hakim's plan to fragment Iraq into semi-autonomous regions. Remember, Sadr (whose power base and primary residence is in Baghdad) had almost as much to lose as the Sunnis if the north and south of the country fall under the independent control of the Kurdish and Shiite factions in power in those regions, respectively. Those northern and southern areas are where almost all of the oil is at, and nobody wants to be shut out of the spoils from Iraq's primary money maker. But with the prospect of his own regional fiefdom in Baghdad (and probably some assurances about access to oil revenues generated in the south), Sadr appears to be on board with the UIA/Hakim project. His continued cooperation ensures that the UIA will remain the formidable political bloc in the new Iraq.

Speaking of which, it is worth noting (as praktike did), that these developments are indicative of the possible diminution of the power of Sistani within Shiite political circles. Sistani has expressed his disapproval for the same regional-autonomy plans that Hakim is now so publicly insisting on (perhaps with Sadr on board as well). To paraphrase praktike, either Sistani has been less than 100% honest in his public proclamations on these matters, or SCIRI is driving the car at this point. Worth keeping an eye on.

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