Iraq's draft constitution will probably be approved in the referendum to be held today. But whether it is ratified or not ultimately does not matter, as the finished product -- and the whole constitution-making process -- is totally out of touch with the realities of a country that no longer exists as a coherent body politic.
The problem is not with the constitution, but with the conventional wisdom -- almost an idee fixe -- that Iraq is a viable modern nation-state and that all it needs to make it work properly is the right political institutions. But this is a fallacy and responsible leaders should begin to think of alternatives.
The Iraqi state, established in the 1920s by British imperialist planners (with Winston Churchill in the lead), is a strange pastiche of three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire: Mosul in the north with a Kurdish majority, Baghdad in the center with a Sunni Arab majority and Basra in the south with a Shia Arab majority.
For their own political reasons, the British put the Sunni Arabs -- never more than 25 percent of the population -- in control of the whole country and even imported a Sunni Arab Hashemite prince to rule over their creation.
Ever since, the country could be held together only by an iron fist: Iraq's history is replete with Shia, Kurdish and even Christian Assyrian revolts, all put down in bloody fashion by the ruling Sunni minority.
HISTORY OF OPPRESSION
Throughout its history, modern Iraq has always been the most oppressive of the Arab countries. Saddam's rule was only the most brutal in a long line of Sunni regimes.
It was this Sunni hegemony -- and not merely that of Saddam's Baathist regime -- that was toppled by the US. But, given Iraq's history and demography, the American attempt to refashion the country as a functioning democracy has foundered on three shoals: the Shia majority's empowerment, the Kurds's refusal to give up their hard-won de facto mini-state in the north and the Sunnis' violent campaign to undermine any system that they do not lead.
In short, the draft constitution is an attempt to square a circle. The Sunni resistance -- a guerilla and terrorist war that was well prepared in the last years of Saddam's rule -- will continue to try to subvert any semblance of order representing the current majority Shia-Kurdish coalition.
The Sunnis will go on with their murderous attacks on Shias, Kurds and the US-led military coalition. They will probably boycott the constitutional referendum and all subsequent elections, just as they have boycotted the previous elections.
After all, given the brutal logic of their long hegemony in Iraq, why should the Sunnis contemplate submitting to a process that is premised on their minority status, particularly when whole areas of the country are under the effective control of the Sunni insurgency?
Similarly, why should the Shias, for their part, submit to Sunni hegemony rather than building up their own political structure in the south, modeled on what the Kurds have already achieved in the north?
Let's be frank: Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia as it disintegrated in the early 1990s. This should be acknowledged and ultimately welcomed, despite conventional diplomatic norms regarding the inviolability of the territorial integrity of existing states.
Of course, such norms are helpful. But once a state disintegrates, as happened in Yugoslavia, no constitutional formulations can save it. Constitutions works only if all sides have an interest in operating within the proposed framework -- and this obviously is not the case in Iraq.
There is nothing sacrosanct in the continued existence of multi-ethnic and multi-religious states if their constitutive groups do not wish to live together. On the contrary, there are lessons to be learned from the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and even -- perhaps especially -- Czechoslovakia, which negotiated its break-up without violence.
By contrast, Bosnia-Herzegovina is an example of another failed attempt to keep a decrepit multi-ethnic entity alive: It doesn't work, and the country is held together only by the almost dictatorial power of the international community's High Representative and the presence of foreign troops.
It is time to face reality: The Kurdish region in the north is functioning in a reasonable way and it has even been able to allay Ankara's fears that its existence will aggravate Turkey's own Kurdish problem.
With the Shias building their polity in the south, the Sunni areas too should be allowed to go their own way. This may be more conducive to peace than trying to impose on them a hated occupation or an equally hated Shia hegemony.
The emergence of three states -- or highly autonomous regions -- instead of a unified Iraq is happening anyway, constitution or no constitution.
Nobody, it appears, can put Humpty-Dumpty Iraq together again. But it will require courage to acknowledge what is occurring before our eyes, rather than continue to grasp at the chimera of a consolidated Iraqi state.
In fact, to acknowledge the obvious in Iraq is also to recognize that there are grounds for hope. As in the former Yugoslavia, the separate entities now emerging may stand a better chance of developing a semblance of representative and eventually democratic governance than if Iraq's warring communities are forced to live together in the prison house that the country has always been for most of its citizens.
Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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