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August 26, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Amid missed deadlines, threats, 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, so we're going to devote almost all of the program to it. 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, as usual, 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.

The minority Sunnis, who boycotted National Elections in January, and are thought to be the main stay of the insurgency, favor a strong central government. The Sunnis argue that federalism, that is, 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 if this constitution passes, warning, "The streets will rise up."

BUSH: 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?

PAUL 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 is that demand?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, with the Shiites and the Kurds, and 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. That's to say they want a state something like the United States, with strong regional governments. And if it's legitimate -- yeah, I think it's not only legitimate, it's the only kind of constitution that's 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.

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

ROB POLLOCK: Since shortly thereafter, yes.

PAUL GIGOT: And 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.

ROB POLLOCK: No, these are absolutely reasonable fears. And it's important to remember that when people talk about the possibility of federalism leading to the breakup of Iraq. If you didn't have federalism, Iraq would break up because the Kurds would secede. They insist on it.

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

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I think the majority of the Shiite community really doesn't have any desire and 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's 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.

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

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I'm 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. And the Sunnis know that, and federalism, really, the obverse side is the discussion of oil distribution. And 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.

PAUL 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.

ROB POLLOCK: That's 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.

PAUL GIGOT: You think that's fair?

DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I think it is fair. I'm 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 aren't going to be impoverished.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, now 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, saying, "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, and they want that modified or not in the constitution, and then on federalism. What is the president doing here, Rob?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, I think you've got it exactly right. What he's trying to do is get Sunni buy-in. But it's 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.

PAUL 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

ROB POLLOCK: That's right. And so here comes President Bush in this -- I think, elusive goal. And he snatches defeats from the jaws of victory. We would've had the deal on the constitution Thursday had he not made this call to Akim.

PAUL 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 their argument -- the legitimacy of their objection, and may have damaged the prospects for the constitution in the long run.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, 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've been to make the Sunnis realize that they have no place else to go, and they must compromise.

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

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, Dan. Let's move on to another of the contentious issues in the draft constitution -- the role of Islam. The draft constitution establishes Islam as, a main source for legislation, although carefully not the main source. It also says that no law may contradict the basic beliefs of Islam, and calls for the appointment of judges expert in Islamic Law to preside on the Supreme Federal Court. Secular critics argue these judges could strike down any law in conflict with Islamic faith, turning Iraq effectively into an Islamic theocracy. Defenders of the draft point out that the constitution also states that no law may contradict democratic standards.

Zalmay Khalilzad, US Ambassador to Iraq, called it "a synthesis between Islamic traditions of the country with the universal principles of democracy and human rights." Rob, we've heard the accusation this week that we -- that is, United States troops, deposed Saddam Hussein only to pave the way, in the end, for an Iranian-style Shiite theocracy. How real is that possibility?

ROB POLLOCK: That's utterly preposterous, and I don't think that anyone who actually took a look at the draft of this constitution -- I can't imagine where they arrived at that. The strongest language in favor of Islam is that Islam will be a, not the, a basic source of legislation. Who's going to interpret that anyway? It's going to be the elected representative. And who are the elected representatives going to be? I can guarantee you it's not going to be a majority of turbaned ayatollahs. The majority of Iraqis clearly don't want that. It's not going to happen.

PAUL GIGOT: Reuel, you've been a student of the grand Ayatollah Sistani, and his brand of Shiite theology, and you've argued that his brand of political theology, if you will, is not the same as that of the clerics in Qom or Tehran. Elaborate on that.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: It's very much different. I would say it's 180 degrees opposite. If you go back and you look at his first major public statement, which was a fatwa issued on June 28, 2003, he comes down clearly in favor of democracy, one man one vote. He gives democracy almost a canonical authority. This is revolutionary in Shiite history. He also has, I think, gone out of his way to tell people that he does not want in any way, shape, or form, what they have in Iran, that is the rule -- this theological juris-consul. And he wants -- clerics are going to have some role inside of Iraqi society. I would argue that they should have some role. You want traditional clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, to be involved in the political process, that is to support democracy.

But I don't think you will find much approval at all in the Shiite community, and I would say also in the Sunni community, for cleric actually ruling; democracy will be what is the final arbiter of political passion.

PAUL GIGOT: And, of course, the Kurds are secular Islamists, in a sense, so they're a restraining influence on any theological impulses.

ROB POLLOCK: Largely so, as are the majority of Shiites largely secular people. These terms that we use are very rough. They're useful to a certain extent, but most Iraqis don't think of themselves as religious people first.

PAUL GIGOT: I want to ask you about the perception about this constitution on the part of some of the secular Iraqis, because Ahmed Chalabi, who's the deputy prime minister and secular Shiite himself seems mostly approving, whereas lyad Allawi, who is the former Prime Minister under the interim constitution before the elections, he says this is a threat and a danger -- what explains that difference?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, it's not surprising that we find Chalabi approving, despite the fact that -- because he's been a driving force behind the constitution, and because he was the one that organized the Shiite list that won the last election, despite all the assurances we had from the state department and the CIA that he had no support in Iraq. He's emerged as a major player there, he's a had a major role in shaping this constitution.

Allawi, who was our pick for interim leader in Iraq, was roundly rejected at the election, and it's not surprising now that he doesn't like -- as an opposition leader, he doesn't like the direction the government's going.

PAUL GIGOT: So Allawi is playing the role of something of an opposition leader.

DAN HENNINGER: Well, I think it's important to remember that Allawi's prized organization, the Iraqi National Accord, has essentially Sunni roots. It has been a Sunni Baathist organization; it has a very, very weak following amongst Shiites. Also, I don't want to cast an aspersion, but I suspect that Mr. Allawi -- it's been a long time since he's been in a mosque, at least to pray; and Chalabi is probably somewhat more familiar with that, and therefore he fears it less.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, the role of Islam in this constitution -- you have to compare it, I think, to the role of Islam in other constitutions in other Arab nations. There were similar Islamic elements in the Afghan charter, which was signed to large approval last year, and then you have the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, among others. Is this a step forward, as you look and compare them to all those other constitutions?

DAN HENNINGER: I would say it's clearly a step forward. It's reflected, as Rob suggested, in the language of the drafted constitution -- the place of democracy and individual rights is very clearly stated. And one has to keep in mind that Iraq is a work in progress, and it's a very interesting country. There has always been a large secular presence in Iraq -- a middle class. It is not as monolithic religiously as a country like Afghanistan. And so you have a lot of forces in play inside Iraq -- some of them undoubtedly pushing for a more secularized greater separation of church and state, and they will simply have to work out these differences with the proponents of Islamic law.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay. The debate about the role of Islam is related to another controversial area -- what the draft constitution has to say about democratic rights and freedoms, and especially the rights of women.

The draft constitution says, "All citizens are equal before the law," but many laws will be administered by religious courts. By Islamic tenants, women are not equal to men in many matters, such as divorce, marriage, child custody, and inheritance.

BUSH: The rights for women is important for a free society; they understand that.

The draft guarantees that no less than 25 percent of the seats in the council deputy will go to women, but that provision has been assigned to a part of the document that is considered transitional, and critics worry it may not survive. Women also sought mandatory education through middle school. Only 45 percent of Iraqi women are literate, compared to 71 percent of Iraqi men. But what they got is mandatory education only through elementary school.

PAUL GIGOT: Reuel, you've written that, "Americans of a feminist disposition should realize that equal rights between the sexes is not a pre-condition for the growth of democracy." Elaborate on that for us?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, historically, it should be easy to see that in the west. If it were a precondition, then western democracy certainly wouldn't have started -- wouldn't have succeeded -- because we didn't give women the right to vote until 1920. It's important to remember in Iraq -- you are not going to have democracy take root, and have the traditional communities -- the Shiite and the Sunni communities -- support it. And there is definitely a greater Islamic identify in those communities.

However, I have heard no one in Iraq say that women shouldn't have the right to vote. I think people have to realize is what you want is to begin a public debate. You want the democratic process to move forward. Then, later then can start having these debates about where the red lines are, where in fact women's rights begin. It's a moving line, but the most important thing is to get the traditional communities on board so they support the democratic process, and then let the great debates begin.

PAUL GIGOT: Of course, women played a very prominent role in the elections in January, turning out in really big numbers. Was that a one-time event, they're likely to say, "From now on, we won't vote," or "We won't participate?"

REUEL MARC GERECHT: No, I suspect you will see it over and over and over again, and I suspect many of those women who actually turned out to vote are not necessarily incredibly hostile to the notion of having Islamic law have some part to play in family law.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, let's broaden this out a little bit -- and Rob, I want to talk about your trip a little bit, and get your perspective not he securities situation. Because you were there, you met General David Petraeus, who was in charge of training the Iraqi security forces -- which is crucial, obviously, if we're going to leave - give a much smaller American presence. What's your sense of the progress on that front?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, my sense is that while Baghdad doesn't feel a lot safer today than it did the last time I was there about a year ago. My sense is that we're about to hit a critical mass. And one reason I believe this is you see a lot more Iraqi security forces on the street than you did a year ago -- a lot more. And a smaller American footprint. And this is a good thing -- why? Because this war isn't any longer primarily about fire power, it's about policing and intelligence; it's about things that only the Iraqis themselves can do really well. So I have a feeling we're about to get there.

Another important thing to remember is that the training of security forces that General Petraeus has done is only finally starting to show its results. This idea put forward by Senator Biden and others that we have only a handful of Iraqi battalions that are capable of operating just simply isn't correct. There are more than three dozen battalions which operate in the lead in Iraq at the moment.

PAUL GIGOT: Are there Iraqi units that have fought and have the experience, the battle-hard leadership, that allows them to be able to go on their own without American backing, and fight to counter the insurgencey?

ROB POLLOCK: Absolutely. I was told by American commanders that the Iraqi special ops and commander battalions are probably at this point the best special forces in the world outside of ours, probably because have the most experience.

PAUL GIGOT: But let's stipulate -- Baghdad in particular is very dangerous.

ROB POLLOCK: It's absolutely a dangerous place, but the Iraqis are starting to make more decisions. I spent a day at the Ministry of Defense in Iraq, and you can see that that is now a growing concern -- the Iraqis are starting to run their own show, and the minister of defense, Saadoun al-Dulaimi who represents a very large tribe from the Anbar province, a Sunni tribe, but who is not a Baathist and is an honest to goodness Sunni leader, he's not with the bad guys -- he's an honest man, and everyone credits him with doing a very good job. So I think there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. But in the fairly near term, there is going to be a sort of critical mass among Iraqi forces, and we are going to see improvements.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, big picture here -- since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, looking at all the progress and the set-backs since then, and now this debate over the constitution -- do we still have the prospect of emerging at the end of the day here with a stable, unified, and presumably free Iraq?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I think that as long as the Shia community, the Shia center holds, then you've got an ongoing political process. And what has been striking, I have to say, in Iraq -- on both the Shiite side and the Kurdish side, is the lack of revenge killing. You had it, but given the barbarism that existed under Saddam Hussein's rule, given how many tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in the most horrific fashion, it is striking to see how little violence there has been -- intercommunal violence.

This should give everybody hope. And if you look abroad, if you look in the Middle East, you see the way this has galvanized the democratic debate -- people tend to ignore this. It is astonishing.

DANIEL HENNINGER: I would like to add a footnote to that. The violence that's seen by the outside world is defined in two ways: suicide bombers who blow up Iraqis, and roadside bombs that blow up American soldiers. Subtract those two elements, and it actually looks like a fairly normal place. That violence is aimed at stopping this constitutional process, and I think thwarting the October referendum. And to the extent they fail, I think Iraq has the change of succeeding.

PAUL GIGOT: And one other thing -- it's aimed at American political opinion, and popular opinion, to try to reduce our resolve here. Okay, thank you all very much.