RAY SUAREZ: The posters and signs going up around much of the country, urging Iraqis to go to the polls this Saturday and vote yes for the new constitution.
SPOKESPERSON (Translated): The constitution is in the interest of the people and every citizen should vote.
RAY SUAREZ: But the proposed constitution, distributed to Iraqis in U.N.-printed booklets, has provoked fierce debate. Shia, Kurd and Sunni politicians in the National Assembly agreed to a last-minute deal late yesterday. It included compromised aimed as attracting support from the minority Sunnis. Up until now, many had threatened a no vote.
Under the deal, which came with strong American prompting, one key Sunni party agreed to support a yes vote on Saturday in return for a chance to revise the new constitution later. The original draft would have barred amendments for eight years.
In a nationally televised conference today, the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, hailed the breakthrough.
JALAL TALABANI (Translated): Naturally this day will be a day for national unity, so no one can come up with a pretext because concessions have been made by the United Iraqi Alliance, Kurdistan Alliance and Iraqi List to achieve the demands which have been submitted by the Sunni brothers.
RAY SUAREZ: Many Sunnis boycotted January's election. They ended up with a reduced role in the national assembly, which was drafting the constitution. Sunnis, just 20 percent of the population, say they're afraid the draft constitution would lead to Iraq's breakup, allowing Kurds and Shiites to create mini states in the oil-rich North and South, leaving Sunnis in the poorer central zone.
The compromise brought lawmakers back to Baghdad for a special session of parliament today, but the changes were adopted behind closed doors without a formal vote.
All this comes against the backdrop of intensifying violence, much of it attributed to Sunni-led insurgents. In the past 17 days, more than 430 Iraqis have died in attacks around the country.
RAY SUAREZ: So what does this deal mean for Saturday's referendum? To assess that we're joined by: Mark Levine, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Irvine; and Paul Williams, who was in Iraq in July to advise the chairman of the constitutional committee; he's a former State Department lawyer and heads the Public International Law and Policy Group, a nonprofit providing legal and policy assistance to governments in transition.
And, Paul Williams, Jalal Talabani called it a day of national conciliation. Will this deal be enough to bring the Sunnis in to vote yes?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Well, yes, Ray. Today was a very important day politically for Iraq, and it's the first process or the first stage in the process of reengaging the Sunnis.
Now that the Sunnis are supporting the constitution, they'll vote a referendum. And that clears the way for them to stand in the election in December and basically rejoin the assembly.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Levine, do you agree that this brings the Sunnis back into Iraqi politics?
MARK LEVINE: Well, certainly President Talabani has said that now the Sunnis have no excuse for either boycotting or voting against the constitution because it's addressed most of their concerns, but at the same day, a spokesman from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq has said basically the new amendments are really just an added bonus to get people to vote without making substantive changes to the document.
So if we really look at the four main things that were approved, putting in a statement about the constitution guaranteeing unity, Arabic being an official language in Kurdistan, the de-Baathification process and the special committee that will hopefully allow amendments that are more amenable to Sunnis to come through, three out of the four really are meaningless on the ground or actually have very little chance of changing the constitution in the long run.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me stop you right there because you say three out of four of them are meaningless, but don't they represent a large portion of what Sunnis were demanding to see reflected in the new constitution?
MARK LEVINE: Well, there's one thing to demand things being reflected in the constitution. There is another thing for the way they're included to be mostly symbolic. For example, if we look at the statement that the constitution reflects the unity of Iraq, that's a very important symbolic statement, but on the ground if the violence continues, it's really meaningless.
If we look at the Arabic being an official language in Kurdistan, anyone that's been to Israel knows Arabic is an official language in Israel, but without the backing of the full culture, it really is not part of the larger public culture, and, in fact, is marginalized. So you'll see Arabs who are in Kurdistan really not seeing any real improvement in their lives.
The de-Baathification issue is really the one positive development because whereas until now, especially during the CPA period, there was a wholesale de-Baathification, now, at least, you'll have it slowed down and people who were not really part of the crime of the former Baath regime will not be purged.
But the most important point that most people are pointing out -- these new committees -- the committee that will be put together to consider new changes -- really the Sunnis still are going to find it impossible, even if every eligible Sunni voter voted, they will not have anything close to the numbers in parliament to push through any changes that would fundamentally change the balance of power and resources to benefit them. And if that doesn't happen, they're still going to be in place where they see the only tool they have to negotiate is the violence of the insurgency.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Williams, we're very close to election day. These changes come very close to election day. They were just approved today. Do they represent a major concession to Sunni popular opinion?
PAUL WILLIAMS: These changes represent a major strategic change in the way in which the Iraqi government is approaching the insurgency. Early on in the summer they tried to bring all of the Sunnis in, all four or five factions. And what they're now doing is they've realized that they need to peel them off one at a time.
So these changes are just enough to bring in the moderate Sunni parties. And then they'll have this committee which will be formed in January, and they that will work on questions of federalism and other issues to try to bring in some of the hard-line parties and thereby isolate the insurgents, both the Sunni insurgents and the foreign insurgents. So it is a very important development. It's a small step, but it is a change, a major change in the strategy of the Iraqi government.
RAY SUAREZ: President Talabani described the concessions as substantial. Do you agree with the professor that they don't really amount to much?
PAUL WILLIAMS: They're minor concessions, but they're very, very important concessions. Iraq is a tripod. It must operate with all three legs: the Shia, the Kurd and the Sunni. Over the summer the Sunni were lost because they tried to go too far, both the Shia and the Kurds in bringing too many of the Sunnis in and the Sunnis in terms of their demands.
The Sunnis have pared down their demands and the Shia and the Kurds are basically making minor concessions and building political support among the Sunnis.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you heard Paul Williams talk about peeling off moderates. Is that what this is really all about; it's more tactical than it is anything else?
MARK LEVINE: It certainly is, it certainly is tactical, but here's the problem: You can't be minor but also be very important. In order to be really important and substantive, you have to be major. And what I really fear is a repeat of the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinians where the really hard negotiations were constantly pushed off on the assumption that if you could carry people along, you'll build momentum for hard compromises later on.
We saw that didn't work there precisely because the groundwork was not laid for building the trust that could produce this kind of agreement. Certainly the violence that's continuing in Iraq right today, I think demonstrates the same problem here.
Without fundamentally changing the equation, especially addressing issues like the permanent presence of U.S. troops or at least long-term basing rights, which isn't touched in the constitution, wholesale privatization of the economy, which has caused a lot of damage for average Iraqis, really who is going to manage and control the oil industry; these are things that matter to average Iraqis which aren't even on the table. And when you put them together with the other issues that weren't touched, it's hard for me to understand how in the long run they're going to result in something positive, even though I agree that they'll probably be enough to get the constitution passed.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were in Iraq to advise the chairman of the constitutional committee. Could any of the things that the professor just mentioned have been on the table and still resulted in some sort of draft to vote on this month?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's very important to realize that there is a difference between the peace process like the Oslo process and a post-conflict constitution process.
This is the first time the Iraqis are engaged in a democratic process, and in a sense they're learning as they're going. And I think we saw a lot of positional bargaining, a lot of hard-line politics over the course of the summer.
The Shia and the Kurds have had an initial victory, and now they're in a position to be able to begin to take into consideration some of the primary concerns of the Sunnis. They can't do it all at once. Their political support won't sustain that.
We've seen today that Sistani has come out and begun to support the referendum and the constitution, and you're seeing a snowballing effect. You have to do these things in a process where you build confidence, where you build trust, where you build consensus. That is the Iraqi way. That's what we saw over the summer, and they're returning to that now. And so it is a very important and very crucial step, regardless of the specific types of changes that they're making to the constitution.
RAY SUAREZ: But in his comparison to the Oslo process and pushing the tough stuff till the end, are they also giving themselves a tougher assignment down the road?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Well, you need to push the tough stuff to the end. This will be a year-and-a-half to a two-year process. The constitution is really operating as a framework agreement. There are over 35 specific commissions, entities, agencies that have to be set up by the new parliament. So adding on a committee, which quite frankly will mostly address federalism type of issues, which weren't resolved over the summer, Iraq will be a federal state, but it doesn't say much more than that in the constitution.
So what you're essentially doing is continuing to wrap up the unfinished business of the summer and doing so in a way which includes the Sunnis. It essentially allows a political do-over, which they were going to have to do anyway, in terms of implementing the constitution. So why not include the Sunnis in that process?
RAY SUAREZ: Can that work, Professor, getting what Paul Williams calls a political do-over, still getting a passed constitution on Saturday but then at least opening a process to talk about some of the hard things that have to be done?
MARK LEVINE: Well, then you get a situation, whereas in January most Iraqis didn't know exactly whom they were voting for when they voted in the elections -- now you have Iraqis not knowing what they're voting for in terms if they're voting for a constitution that could be fundamentally altered.
But, beyond that, really there's only one shot at doing this according to the amendment that I saw. So there is one shot in which it's going to focus, apparently, I didn't know this, mostly on issues related to federalism, so so many other issues important to Sunnis are not going to be on the board to be dealt with.
It's still hard for me to understand how this is going to bring in the majority of Sunnis. Remember, the Iraqi Islamic Party may describe itself as a major Islamic party -- this is a Sunni party that participated in these negotiations -- but certainly it's by no means the major or even the biggest party Sunni Islamic force in the country. And most of those are still either sitting out or actively hostile to this process.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Levine, Paul Williams, thank you both.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Thank you.
MARK LEVINE: Thank you.