Referendum holds future

October 02, 2005|By BARRY RUBIN

The heated controversies over Iraq's draft constitution, which is to be voted on in a referendum Oct. 15, may determine both the fate of the U.S. experiment in promoting democracy in the Middle East and the direction of Iraq itself.

It is impossible to overestimate how important the constitution is for Iraq's future and for the U.S. role in Iraq. If it is adopted and implemented, a permanent government and democratic system will emerge in the country.

Whatever its flaws, this will be a huge step forward and will make possible the withdrawal of most U.S. forces within a year. If the constitution is voted down, the situation will be even more difficult than it is today. The process of producing a governing document will have to start over from the beginning, taking at least six months and possibly producing a complete breakdown and civil war in the not-too-distant future.

The most intense debates have erupted over the extent of Islam's role in the new system, if decentralization would endanger the survival of the unified state and whether the minority Sunni Muslim Arabs are left with too little power.

But the provisions in the constitution with regard to making Islam the dominant force in Iraq's governance are not as bad as some suggest. The general Islamist position is that Islam should be the main (or only) source of law. Under Iraq's constitution, it is a main source, which is certainly not secular but is a formula accepted by many Arab moderates elsewhere.

The constitution provides for laws that cannot contradict Islamic standards, but they also cannot conflict with democratic standards or with the rights and promised freedoms. Iraq's people are defined as having an Islamic identity, but all religions are promised full freedom.

One fascinating definition of identity: the Arabs of Iraq - and not Iraq as a whole - are said to be part of the Arab nation. This detail is psychologically explosive on a regional level. It means that non-Arab groups - a reference to the Kurds, who are 20 percent of the population - can opt out of Arabism. Arab nationalism would thus become a form of ethnic sympathy rather than national policy. This would be a blow to pan-Arabism because Iraq would be blazing the path for the kind of identity for individual states that has been the basis for progress everywhere else in the world.

The constitution is very tolerant regarding communal relations within Iraq. Arabic and Kurdish have joint status as official languages, while the Turkoman - a point that should please Turkey - and Assyrian languages will have equal status in the regions where the people who speak them live.

The constitution has some original features regarding federalism, even though federalism is unknown in the Arab world. Strong central governments have been viewed, with good reason, as being the only protection against anarchy and the collapse of the state. Therefore, it is understandable that few Arabs think it will work in Iraq, and they might be right.

Still, on the important and controversial question of dividing oil revenues, the document provides for a commission with members from all national and regional government bodies to set up a system for apportioning wealth. This is also a gesture toward the Sunnis, whose areas have no oil fields. The principle set forward is that the distribution of money should be in proportion to the population in every area of the country.

Another unique feature is that provinces - there are 18 of them - would have the right to set up regions with a considerable amount of autonomy. Voters or legislators can demand this and, on paper, such a decision looks easy. Presumably, the goal is to make groups feel secure that they can get a degree of local self-rule if they want that. Nothing is to prevent the minority Sunni Arabs from also setting up their own region.

Apparently, though, the Sunnis' fear derives not so much from a threat to their communal life but to the centralized system that they dominated in the past. Though no Sunni leader seems to think so, in fact the proposed constitutional order might be far more beneficial for the Sunnis than a centralized system that puts them at the mercy of a Shia and Kurdish majority. But Sunnis want the centralized Iraq they are familiar with.

Their problem is adjusting to the fact that as a minority - perhaps only 20 percent of the population - they would benefit from a system that guarantees minority rights.

The constitution also promises a wide range of human rights, freedom of expression and the press and prohibits torture. One-fourth of the 275 seats in the current National Assembly would go to women, a remarkable development in an Arab country and some protection for women's rights, despite the greater role for Islam in shaping the country's laws.

Equally intriguing is that the constitution not only condemns terrorism within Iraq but also promises that the country will not be a base for terrorist activities against others, another constitutional first with important regional significance.

Obviously, any such constitution's significance will depend on how - and how much - its provisions will be implemented. Still, the framework is not so bad. That doesn't mean the constitution will work, but that could be true regardless of how it is worded.

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and a visiting professor at American University, is the author of The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.

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