Wed, Oct 12, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Sunni bullets at the ready if Iraq's constitutional ballots fail

By Edward Luttwak

When the Iraq war started in 2003, the administration of US President George W. Bush had very ambitious plans: as in post-1945 Germany and Japan, a long and peaceful occupation was envisaged, during which expanding oil production would assure rising prosperity as democratic structures were built piece by piece. The foundation was to be a liberal, even post-modern constitution, complete with a guarantee of 25 percent of parliamentary seats for women.

In today's Iraq, however, there is no peace and no prosperity. The constitution that will be voted on on Saturday includes that 25 percent rule, but otherwise is far from liberal. The key provision (Article 2) that no law may contradict "the undisputed rules of Islam" violates the basic principle of parliamentary sovereignty, and will prevent legislation from meeting international standards.

For example, the age of sexual consent for girls cannot be set above nine, because Mohammed himself had a nine-year-old wife. It follows that nine-year-old girls are also adults in criminal law, and subject to capital punishment for, say, converting to another religion.

More broadly, the Shiites can use this provision to place their ayatollahs over the elected parliament, as in Iran, because they alone are authorized to determine the "rules" of Islam.

Outsiders and the few Iraqi liberals worry mainly about this Islamic provision, but the widespread Sunni opposition to the constitution is aimed at other provisions: the exclusion of the "Saddamist Baath Party" from political life and government, and the federalist provisions that grant autonomy to the 18 Iraqi provinces and allow them to combine into regional governments.

The exclusion rule is a personal issue for elite Sunnis -- including thousands of businessmen, professionals, even artists -- because, with few exceptions, they were all Baath members. In theory, the constitutional prohibition could be interpreted as applying only to the future. But in practice administrative rules are now being applied to exclude so-called "high-ranking" Baath members from any form of government employment, and thousands are affected.

The Sunnis would probably accept the federalist provisions if they applied only to the Kurds. They know that the alternative is not a return to centralism, but secession by the three Kurdish-majority provinces of Dahuk, Arbil, and As Sulaymaniyah to form an independent Kurdistan, with its own treasury, army (the Pesh Merga), and oil production around Kirkuk -- the second-largest reserves in Iraq.

Sunnis reject the same federalism for the Shiites because they view them as fellow Arabs who have always accepted Sunni rule in the past, and will do so again -- unless they have their own government. That is what the new constitution would allow, because the Shiite-majority provinces in the south -- which contain the greater part of Iraq's oil reserves -- could form their own regional government.

In the usual style of the Middle East, disappointed Sunni leaders, unhappy with the constitution, now threaten violence. But federalism is not the reason why Sunni supremacists and Islamists launch deadly attacks. Their opposition is more elemental: they do not accept the principle of democratic majority rule. Instead, they seek to restore Sunni minority rule. For the Islamists, all Shiites deserve death anyway, as apostates.

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