The Journal Editorial Report | August 26, 2005 | PBS
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Lead Story
August 26, 2005

We the People
Iraq's President Jalal Talabani meets with Sunni leaders
Iraq's President Jalal Talabani meets with Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni member of the constitution drafting committee, and Sunni leaders in Baghdad, August 25, 2005. President Talabani said he is optimistic that consensus will be achieved regarding Iraq's new constitution. REUTERS/Wathiq Khuzaie

Amid missed deadlines, threatens, and violence, Iraqis have been trying to take another giant step toward creating a new country, drafting a constitution that may not be everything we want, but might have a chance of working with their realities and their culture. Their struggle has important implications for American interest in Iraq and the Middle East.

PAUL GIGOT: Our colleague, Rob Pollock, has just returned from Iraq with first-hand information about how the constitution has been negotiated and fresh impressions about security and other developments in Iraq. We're also joined by Ruel Marc Grecht of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Grecht formerly was a Middle East specialist for the CIA. And Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of the editorial page.

Let's take some of the major concerns about the draft constitution one by one. The major debate has revolved around choosing between a strong central government and a loose federation of several regions. Iraq is divided into three primary regions -- the Kurdish north, with some oil reserves; the desolate sandy central Sunni region, devoid of oil, and the Shiite-dominated south, where most of the country's vast oil reserves are located. The draft establishes a Kurdish self-ruled region in the north, and provides for creation of others -- meaning Shiite rule in the oil-rich south.

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The minority Sunnis, who boycotted national elections in January and are thought to be the mainstay of the insurgency, favor a strong central government. The Sunnis argue that federalism -- a central federal government made up of more or less self-governing regions -- is a first step towards partition. Sunni leader Saleh Al-Mutlak spoke of civil war, warning that if this constitution passes, "The streets will rise up."

While President Bush said,"The Sunnis have got to make a choice -- do they want to live in a society that's free, or do they want to live in violence?"

GIGOT: Rob, you're just back from two weeks in Iraq watching how the constitution was being negotiated. The big dispute is over federalism. What are the Shiites and the Kurds really insisting on here and how legitimate are those demands?

ROB POLLOCK: Let's remember that the Shiite and the Kurdish leaders represent at least 80 percent of the people who voted in the election. So this is a very important constituency. What they want is federalism. They want a state something like the United States, with strong regional governments. I think it is not only legitimate, it is the only kind of constitution that is going to keep Iraq together over the long run, and is going to prevent it from becoming a tyranny again. In the past, we have a long history of strong central governments in Baghdad, going back before Saddam Hussein dominating the country and oppressing people.

GIGOT: The Kurds have had autonomy since 1991 with the no-fly zone, correct?

POLLOCK: Since shortly thereafter, yes.

GIGOT: The Shiites have a long historical memory of what happened to them with the strong central authority in Baghdad under Saddam. So both of these are driving some of their demands.

POLLOCK: These are absolutely reasonable fears. It is important to remember that when people talk about the possibility of federalism leading to the breakup of Iraq. If you did not have federalism, Iraq would break up because the Kurds would secede. They insist on it.

GIGOT: Explain that paradox to me. Rob says the Shiites are 60 percent of the country. Yet, under the terms of the constitution, they don't want to dominate from Baghdad the way Saddam did. What does this say about their intentions?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I think the majority of the Shiite community really does not have any desire or intention to rule over all of Iraq. I think it is fair to say there are elements in the Shiite community, particularly the young man Moqtada al-Sadr, who perhaps has aspirations which are national and not terribly democratic. But it is certainly clear with the traditional clergy that they have shown remarkable restraint, they have endorsed the idea of democracy quite forcefully, and they do not want to set up any type of a system that would once again bring tyranny to the country.

GIGOT: How legitimate are the Sunni objections here? The delegates are saying they won't sign on to a truly federal system and they are worried that somehow the Shiites might set up of two or three provinces that will become a satellite of Iran, for example. How legitimate is that?

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GERECHT: I am not terribly concerned about Iran. That often is a very Sunni reflex, to believe that the Iranians are coming over the border again. I think that's very much overrated. I think the distance between the Iraqi Shiite and the Iranian Shiite is quite substantial, and the difference between the Iraqi clergy and the Iranian clergy is large, and I would argue growing.

There is definitely a concern that -- I mean, God put most of the oil into the Kurdish property and the Shiite property. The Sunnis know that and federalism, really, the obverse side is the discussion of oil distribution. That is the problem. Now, it is also true that I think many on the Shiite side are trying to find a means to reconcile that geographic fact and try to figure out a means by which oil distribution is equitable. But it's certainly easy for the Sunni's to have qualms and to have fear.

GIGOT: But under the draft constitution, there is a formula, I gather, that would allow oil revenues to be distributed -- or some portion of them -- on a per-capita basis, which would mean to the Sunni territories.

POLLOCK: That is absolutely right. The fear, of course, is that you would have this Sunni province with no oil, and that would sort of create a legitimate grievance for the insurgency. But the Shiites and the Kurds, who have taken the lead on this constitution, are very well aware of that problem, and they ended up with a formula that would distribute oil revenues evenly to the provinces based on the population. So that should solve any legitimate Sunni objectives based on revenues.

GIGOT: You think that's fair?

GERECHT: I think it is fair. I am not sure that the Sunnis trust it, but as time goes on -- the proof is in the pudding. But certainly, the details are sufficient for them to realize they are not going to be impoverished.

GIGOT: We had a phone call late this week from President Bush to Abdul Aziz al Akim, one of the main Shiite negotiators and leaders here. Bush told him, "Go back to the drawing board and make an offer that the Sunni delegates can accept on debaathification," that is the pace of getting out the former Saddam elements. They want that modified or not in the constitution, and then on federalism. What is the president doing here?

POLLOCK: I think you've got it exactly right. He is trying to get Sunni buy-in. But it is important to remember that these Sunnis on the committee are not representative. These are not elected people. These are people who are brought into the process, largely because we think they speak for, and perhaps represent, some of the people doing violence.

GIGOT: Because, in part, the Sunnis boycotted the elections in January so they don't have the same amount of representation that the Kurds or the Shiites

POLLOCK: That is right. So here comes President Bush in this, I think, elusive goal. And he snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. We would have had the deal on the constitution Thursday had he not made this call to Akim.

GIGOT: Seems like that could be a mistake, because if they can't at the end of the day get the Sunnis to agree, the president, with his very public call, may have increased the legitimacy of their objection, and may have damaged the prospects for the constitution in the long run.

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GERECHT: I don't think it was probably an astute call. Certainly, on the issue of debaathification, that has had uniform agreement amongst the Kurds and the Shiites. I think the Americans have had a reflex since the very beginning, and that is they have to figure some means to placate the Sunnis. I think the more intelligent approach would have been to make the Sunnis realize that they have no place else to go, and they must compromise.

DANIEL HENNINGER: There has been much too much emphasis put on getting this job done by a date certain or a deadline. The White House is reflecting that kind of panic. What is going on is an extraordinary process after what they have been through under Saddam. You have got people, diverse factions, sitting around the table, negotiating, talking, rather than defaulting as everyone thought they would, to a civil war.


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