Iraq has a “road map” to normalcy. The first step was the withdrawal of the occupation government, which occurred a little over a year ago. The second major step was the national elections that were held in January. Despite protests by some Sunnis, the vote was largely a success. The third big step is rapidly approaching: Iraq is supposed to have a draft constitution by Aug. 15. The formulation of this document may be the most important of the three steps, for it establishes a political framework that will guide all subsequent political developments. Even if some Iraqis complain that the January election was unfair, the document that is now being written will ensure that the political playing field is level in the future and that all Iraqis are protected by law.
According to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which has guided the country since Iraqis reclaimed control of their own destiny, the draft constitution is to be ready Aug. 15, so that it can be voted on in a national referendum Oct. 15. If it is approved, Iraq will then hold a second parliamentary election Dec. 15 to install a new government, the terms of which will be dictated by the new constitution. In fact, however, the Aug. 15 deadline is flexible: The TAL allows for an extra six months to draft the document. But there are justifiable worries that delaying the process that long could be fatal to the country’s prospects as political momentum slows and insurgents intensify their efforts to dictate Iraq’s future by plunging it into civil war.
The insurgency has done damage already. Two weeks ago, 12 Sunni members of the 71-person drafting committee launched a boycott after two of their Sunni colleagues were assassinated. Al-Qaeda in Iraq warned Sunnis not to join in the political process; after being promised more security by the government and assurances that their grievances would be heard, the 12 politicians resumed their work. Support from Sunni Arabs is critical. No document that ignores the concerns of 20 percent of Iraq’s population is going to be workable or fair. More practically, the TAL allows for the constitution to be rejected if voters in three of the country’s 18 provinces reject it by a two-thirds majority, and Sunnis form a majority in four provinces.
Three issues have emerged as the focus of concern.
The first, and perhaps the most important, is the role of Islam in Iraq. At a press conference last week, members of the drafting committee announced that Islam would be identified as the main source of the nation’s laws and no law would be permitted that contradicted Islam. While such a step enjoys the support of the Shiite Arabs who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population, it raises concerns for members of other religions and minorities, as well those supporting women’s rights. Other provisions in the constitution can safeguard the rights of those groups, and a constitutional court will oversee the implementation of the document and can act as a check to ensure that a repressive interpretation of Islam does not occur. If the clergy dominates that court, however, then all bets are off.
Many outside observers consider the rights afforded women to be a benchmark for the new constitution, and there are worries that Islamic role will roll back women’s rights. In a view that is shared by other officials, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that he expects “equality before the law for men and women.” While his logic is impeccable — “A society cannot achieve all its potential if it does things that prevent — weakens prospects of — half of its population to make the fullest contribution that it can” — his warnings raise questions about the independence of the new government and the degree to which Iraqis are the masters of their own destiny.
A second concern is the autonomy that will be granted to the various regions. Kurds dominate Iraq’s north and they have long demanded an independent state. Any step in that direction would worry Iraq’s neighbors, who fear that their own Kurdish populations would rally to join the new state and redraw the map of the entire region. They enjoyed considerable autonomy during the last decade, when they were protected by U.N. forces enforcing a no-fly zone. The Kurds must now be ready to accept genuinely national institutions, even if that means sacrificing some of their own authority, to craft a real state.
A final worry is how the constitution will treat nonofficial militias. Reportedly, the draft will allow individuals to only join political parties — privileging the ballot over the bullet — and ban the possession of weapons. Enforcing that will be problematic in a society that has long considered weapons a common household possession.
Success in this endeavor requires Iraqis to think of themselves as part of a country. This means looking out for national interests rather than merely those of their own ethnic or religious group.
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