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.
One Shiite leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, also vehemently opposes federalism. His followers are the largely illiterate, poorest, and most violent Shiites of the slums of Baghdad and beyond, whose "Mahdi militia" fought US troops last year, even while the US was protecting Shiites from Sunni attackers.
As a very junior priest who derives his authority from his dead ayatollah father -- himself a populist -- al-Sadr is opposed by Iraq's living ayatollahs, who despise his ignorance and violence. Al-Sadr cannot possibly compete with them in religious authority, so he takes an Arab-nationalist stance against them, often recalling that the highest Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, is a Persian, not an Arab.
He also reminds his followers that the El Hakims, who head the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and their "Badr" militia were subsidized exiles in Iran -- many fighting for Iran in the long and bitter Iran-Iraq war -- until the Americans "brought them back."
Al-Sadr opposes federalism because a Shiite regional government would obey his enemies, Sistani and the SCIRI, and, he says, fall under Iranian influence.
To underline his message, al-Sadr sent his men to attack the Badr militia, succeeding in Baghdad, where the Mahdis are numerous, but failing in Najaf, where al-Sadr is hated after the destruction caused last year -- until his men were massacred by the US.
It was bad enough to deal with al-Sadr as a bandit; simple political arithmetic now dictates that he will likely be the central figure deciding the outcome of this month's vote on the constitution.
To reject the constitution and force new elections for a constitutional assembly, opponents need a two-thirds majority in at least three provinces. The Sunnis are only likely to win in two provinces, but if al-Sadr orders his followers in Baghdad's slums to vote "no" alongside local Sunnis, that would probably flip the capital to the constitution's opponents, ensuring its defeat.
As a political thug, al-Sadr is, of course, willing to be bought. Last year he was wanted for murder. Now he wants recognition as a statesman, money, and, at least implicitly, Sistani's and the SCIRI's humiliation.
He might receive offers, and perhaps the bargaining has already started. But some of the Shiites whom he attacks with words and bullets have thousands under arms, and think that he should be offered only bullets.
Edward Luttwak, a military strategist and consultant, is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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