The Journal Editorial Report | October 14, 2005 | PBS
October 14, 2005
An Iraqi woman who recently gave birth casts her vote in Iraq's referendum on the new constitution in Najaf, Iraq, October 14, 2005. Hospitals and prisons organized voting two days ahead of the official date. (AP/Alaa al-Marjani)
If you only watched the video out of Iraq the past few weeks it has been a bad time with more than 450 people killed in the run-up to the constitutional referendum. But the referendum has gone ahead, another big step on the road to democracy in Iraq, against heavy odds. And there was a compromise this week that may turn out to be very important if the Sunni minority population uses it to modify the constitution after it passes, and to gain power in the parliament to be elected in December.
The U.S. expects a "yes" vote to bring together Iraq's factions and reduce support for the insurgency, particularly among the Sunnis. A "no" vote, a defeat of the constitution, would set back the political process and seriously stall the democratization goal for Iraq. It would also mean fresh elections for a new government, a rewriting of the constitution and then another referendum.
The main opposition comes from the Sunnis, one of the major groups along with the Shiites and the Kurds that make up Iraq. Sunnis are only about 20 percent of Iraq's population, but they held power under Saddam Hussein. Now they fear impotency under the new constitution.
The main issue is a provision that establishes a central federal government, but allows semi-autonomous mini-states. This would divide Iraq with the Kurds controlling the north and Shiites controlling the south, the two regions where most of Iraq's oil is and leaving the Sunnis in control of the central and western areas with virtually no oil and thus little power or influence. Most Sunni leaders have not called for a boycott, but they have been urging a "no" vote.
DAN HENNINGER: Even before this week's compromise aimed at satisfying some Sunni concerns, a nationwide vote of approval had been virtually assured. This gives President Bush the opportunity to claim there is progress in Iraq.
The compromise also raises the chances that Sunnis will decide to participate in the political process. They boycotted the elections last January, but the more seats they win in the upcoming December elections, the more power they will have to change the parts of the new constitution they do not like.
DAN HENNINGER: Joining me to discuss what's going on in Iraq are Fouad Ajami, the director of the Middle East Studies program at Johns Hopkins University and a frequent contributor to the editorial pages, Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board, who has reported extensively from the Middle East, and Rob Pollock who covers national security issues and has made several trips to Iraq.
Fouad, thank you for joining us.
FOUAD AJAMI: Thank you.
HENNINGER: Before we get into the nitty gritty of all this, it occurs to me that Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, even Egypt have not recently been holding constitutional conventions. Could you reflect a little bit on what has been accomplished in Iraq?
AJAMI: Well, that's the irony. That here is Iraq, which according to other Arabs is the most violent of Arab societies, in fact charting the way for other Arabs and it is giving some of Iraq's neighbors a case of constitution envy. I have brought with me a document which has just been issued in Egypt which looks back on the constitutional heritage of Egypt. All of a sudden it remembers that there was once a constitution experiment in Egypt and there was a liberal constitution in the 1920s.
So the secret is out, there is something decent unfolding in Iraq. It is unfolding in the shadow of a terrible insurgency, but a society is finding its way to constitutional politics and that is the meaning of what is now playing out in Iraq.
ROB POLLOCK: There was a great moment within the past couple of weeks when one of the Iraqi ministers said to one of the Saudi Ministers, he said "I'm not going to take lectures on democracy from a camel riding Bedouin." Iraqis are gaining confidence and this is good.
HENNINGER: And the Sunnis are joining in the process finally.
BRET STEPHENS: That is one of the most remarkable things about what has happened with this political process. The Sunnis boycotted the January elections but in order for Sunnis to try to promote a "no" vote in this constitution they have been forced to vote. As it is it looks like they are going to have a sizable Sunni turnout, possibly a majority actually in favor of this constitution which shows that Iraq willy nilly is being dragged into a political process that's democratic, that's legitimate and that leads to a genuinely sovereign state.
HENNINGER: You know Fouad, I think we raised this point the last time you were on the program, that the Sunnis ultimately would not make the same mistake that the Shiites did in the 1920 when they dropped out and didn't participate.
AJAMI: And that is ironic for the Sunnis. But I agree with Bret. I mean what you are now looking at in terms of the Sunni community, and I spent quite a bit of time with many Sunni leaders when I was there in July and early August, is they are beginning to understand the consequences of the choice they've made. And now the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is the equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, and the Sunni Endowment, another sizeable group in Iraq have already signaled they are coming into the making of this new Iraq.
STEPHENS: What's particularly amazing is that this is being recognized by al Qaeda, by al-Zarqawi and by this fellow al-Zawahiri who is Osama bin Laden's number two. The U.S. captured a letter he sent, Zawahiri sent to Zarqawi in which he stresses, look we're losing the political battle. It doesn't help our cause when we're beheading Shiites. It doesn't help our cause when we're murdering peasants. The politics here is half the battle and we've got to be opinion shapers and we've got to have some kind of popular base. If not we're going to lose this thing. It's a remarkable document.
HENNINGER: Let's carry this forward a minute. The next big event in Iraq is going to be the December 15th parliamentary elections. From now until then we're going to see some authentic politicking in Iraq, is that not true?
AJAMI: Well, the Sunni made up only, in terms of the membership of the assembly that's now seated, six percent. I mean that's completely unacceptable. But that was the consequence of what they themselves had done. They had boycotted the elections. They will not boycott this next time. They have to understand that the age of hegemony is over.
Many, many Sunni Arabs, and we have to be honest about it, believe that Iraq is a stolen county. That the pax Americana came. This American invasion came and took away from them their own country. The hardest of them is they have to be part of this new Iraq. There is a big place for them. I mean I actually, with your indulgence, I sat in on a meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a noted Shiite leader, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani I think it may have been one of the few times, if any, that Sistani has talked to a visitor from afar I guess. He gave it a fatwa of his own that maybe I wasn't an American you know, of course that I am a Shiite and he could seat me there. And the message was bring the Sunni Arabs into the political process. Everyone wants them, they will get what they need, they will get their rights. They just will not have the whip. They will not have the power of the state as they did before.
HENNINGER: We should talk about one of the most famous Americans in Iraq right now and that is General David Petraeus. General Petraeus was in the United States this week and Rob, I believe you sat down and talked to him. General Petraeus is charged with training Iraqi security forces. He has one of the most crucially important jobs over there. What did he talk about with you?
POLLOCK: Well actually Dan, General Petraeus has just returned to the United States to take command at Fort Leavenworth Kansas. But he was charged for the prior 15 months with training Iraqi security forces and by all accounts I think he has done an incredible job. He took what was basically nothing and made something.
I was there in June 2004. What few Iraqi security forces you could see on the streets, they were shabbily dressed and outfitted. You didn't know if they were going to kidnap you and sell you to the bad guys. When I was there again in August of this year, smartly outfitted Iraqi security forces were visible everywhere.
General Petraeus says there are no 40 Iraqi battalions classified at level two or higher. Level two is the operative level. What that means is that they fight in the lead.
HENNINGER: There's been some confusion about one, two and three and whether they are up to snuff. Maybe you could clarify that for us.
POLLOCK: Level two means that they fight in the lead. That means that they initiate and undertake their own operations. All that level one means is that they are logistically self-sufficient -- that they feed themselves. That is not the most important thing. What matters is how many we have got at level two. And level three is not useless either, that means fighting alongside and that is a useful thing as well.
HENNINGER: Let's talk quickly about the one 800 pound gorilla that has been in the room the past several weeks and that is American politics. Has that contributed at all Brett?
STEPHENS: It is not nice to say, but America has taken a holiday from Iraq or American attention has been on holidays from Iraq with Katrina and Rita and now bird flu and in the process the Iraqis are doing quite well, thank you very much. It goes to show that there is a danger in American micromanaging and there is a danger in fretting too much about what opinion shapers in Washington are saying rather than what is happening on the ground in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and elsewhere.
The Iraqis are taking this process very much in hand, they are moving forward. We are probably going to get a constitution, we are going to get a new parliament and all of this is being done outside of the gaze of THE NEW YORK TIMES and I think it is a good thing.
HENNINGER: Fouad, how much normalcy do you think we can expect with the new parliament after December 15th?
AJAMI: Probably not much. I mean I think there will be a fight. We have always been looking like if we capture Saddam it will settle down, if they have an election it will settle down, if they have a referendum on the constitution....
STEPHENS: Politics is a good thing.
AJAMI: Right alongside this political process is this terrible insurgency. But I think hopefully that many, many Sunni Arabs are beginning to draw the necessary conclusion that they can't fight and defeat this new Iraq. You cannot welcome Saudis and Sudanese and Algerians and bring them in and have them do your dirty work for you. The secret is out and I think that is the hope.
HENNINGER: It sounds like you will be back to talk about this with us again. Next subject.