Constitutional Efforts Hit Snag with Sunni Walkout

Politically shunned since the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baath Party in 2003, Sunni leaders and their six cabinet ministers left the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, citing the inability of the Iraqi government to address its concerns, including more involvement in security matters.

When the latest Constitution was written in 2005, the Kurds and the Shiites — together holding 53 of the 55 seats on the original drafting committee due to a Sunni boycott — set the agenda. Deals were cut on the formation of regions, oil revenue distribution, governmental powers, provincial line-redrawing and legislation in harmony with religion.

Only later did Sunni inclusion on the committee and last-minute changes to the draft by the Kurdish-Shiite coalition, including a promise of a swift constitutional review, win over enough of the Sunnis to ensure its ratification.

But the Sunnis said their objections to persecution of Baath Party remnants, weak language about the country’s Arab identity and the possible formation of a powerful Shiite region went unheard.

“Although there are real and, I think, legitimate issues of concern on the substance of the constitution, a lot of the rejection of that constitution really came from the fact that the Sunnis were and felt so visibly excluded from the process in 2005,” said J. Alexander Thier, a Middle Eastern constitution expert and senior rule-of-law adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

A year after the referendum, the Shiite-led Iraqi legislature followed through on its promise to reopen the constitutional debate. The Constitutional Review Committee, meeting since November 2006, included Kurds and Shiites as well as Sunnis.

“Everybody has to realize they’re going to have to give something up to get a deal, and that a deal is probably a good thing and is better than no deal,” said Haider Ala Hamoudi, University of Pittsburgh law professor and adviser to Shiite Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s office.

In May 2007, the review committee had delivered a temporary list of changes to the Iraqi legislature showing Sunni gains.

One key draft amendment explicitly asks that the central government distribute existing oil wealth proportional to the population distribution in the provinces.

Sunnis had feared that the formation of semi-autonomous regions, allowed under the 2005 constitution, would shut out the oil-poor central and western Sunni provinces from oil revenues.

Should the amendment survive the negotiation, the new language would be a breakthrough for an Iraqi government that has stalled over oil legislation, as well as a dramatic victory for the Sunnis.

Though many of the largely nationalist Sunni Arabs have conceded the issue of federalism, they may discover a secondary benefit to a revenue-distribution amendment: the ability to exercise a larger degree of self-governance, while reaping a share of the nations’ oil revenues.

A Sunni dispute remains, however, over how the country would deal with new oil discoveries and Kirkuk, the multi-ethnicity oil-rich Northern city that Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmen call home.

The Kurds have sought to include Kirkuk in the Kurdish region through a constitution-mandated referendum, holding up amendment negotiations; the Sunnis had requested a delay, hoping to push the vote deadline beyond 2007.

If the vote passes soon and Kirkuk goes to the Kurds, it could be a dangerous precedent for provincial boundary redrawing.

“As soon as the groups perceive that struggle over land is going to have some permanence, then it’s very likely that you will have additional armed conflict,” Thier noted.

Sunnis have few bargaining chips, but could trade in demands from the Shiites on de-Baathification reform to win other governmental powers. The Sunnis had opposed a complete ban of former Baath Party members from any role in the new Iraq.

Sunnis, who don’t expect much legislative power in a popularly elected parliament, could ask for increased power for the president, now a largely ceremonial position, from which they could have continued political input beyond the constitutional review. And because a second, upper house of the legislature, the Federation Council, has yet to be defined, the Sunnis may still be able to influence the power balance toward or away from a central government.

“Everything is related to everything else, in that the Upper House is conceived of as representing provinces or regions, so it’s tied right back to the federalism issue,” said Nathan Brown, director of the Middle East studies program at George Washington University.

Despite Sunni gains in the interim amendment list, the announcement of the withdrawal of the largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, from the Shiite government, and an August recess have delayed negotiations.

“There is clearly a great deal of mistrust … at the level of parliament. It’s not simply a matter of Sunnis boycotting, but of essentially [their] legitimacy as political actors at the national level being questioned,” said Brown.

Should the politicians from the three ethnic groups find a compromise on constitutional amendments, they still need to win the support of the Shiite-led legislature the Sunnis have rejected, and the support of the Iraqi people, who could reject the changes and nullify a year’s worth of political progress.

“If it goes to a referendum and fails, that will be a pretty dramatic rejection of one of the key milestones of the ongoing political process,” Thier said, adding that even if the referendum passes, it could still anger Iraqis who wanted to see their group get more from the deal.

Though a July White House review of Iraq strategy commended Iraqi leaders for making “satisfactory progress” on their constitutional review, it warned that a political reconciliation would depend on success in many other areas, including de-Baathification reform, militia disarmament and bolstering Iraqi security forces.

“There are a lot of issues that lie outside the constitutional process that also need to be simultaneously addressed in order for this to be meaningful,” Thier said.

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