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Iraqi Constitution Struggle

After struggling for weeks and missing one major deadline, Iraqi leaders put off a final vote today on the new constitution. Three experts discuss the ramifications.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And for an assessment of what these developments mean for Iraq and its hoped-for constitution, we turn to former Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins. He's held top State Department and White House posts under four presidents, dealing with post-conflict Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Afghanistan. He's now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation; Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies — he's been to Iraq several times since the 2003 US invasion, most recently last month; and Mariam Memarsadeghi is senior program manager for Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House. That's a nonprofit organization to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Welcome to you all; thanks for being here.

    Fouad Ajami, I know you've been on the phone a lot this afternoon talking to people back in Iraq. Was it as much of a thriller to get this done as it appeared from watching television, and how did they come up with this rather ingenious solution of leaving the deadline but not quite?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    Well, there are these great moments, Margaret, of this war in Iraq, this was the fall of Saddam's statue on April 9 in 2003; there was the capture of Saddam himself on Dec. 13. There was of course the election on Jan. 30 with people lifting their index finger, the revolution of purple ink. This was, again, one of these moments. Was it as grand as the other ones, no, because the Iraqi people are tired and exhausted, and because the process of drafting constitution is not as photogenic as these other moments.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But who thought up the idea of, okay, we can't quite cut this deal, but we're not going to go ahead and do it without the Sunnis on board?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    I think this has always been so. I mean, I've spent a lot of time with Dr. Humam Hammoudi; he's the Shia cleric; he's the head of the constitution committee drafting this document, a very, very talented politician from day one, and even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and I should slip in that I did have a chance to see this remarkable man. Everyone has been on board — everyone has been, there's an agreement that the Sunni Arabs had to be brought into the constitutional process because they were not party to the election, and room has been given, by the way, for the Sunni Arabs to pretend that they oppose everything as a protection to them, because we know that the assassins have been stalking them and waiting for them.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Do you consider this a positive outcome?

  • JAMES DOBBINS:

    I think it's another step toward a positive outcome, I suspect that the draft will probably have to be amended further to get the Sunnis to buy in. If it isn't it probably means they haven't bought in and it's a failure. But I think you're a step closer. They may meet the next deadline; they may postpone it another few days. But we've got a draft on the table; we see where most of the compromises are. And the real test is whether the Sunnis are prepared to buy into this agreement.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And the drafters had a very practical reason for getting the Sunnis on board as well, did they not, because the constitution has to be ratified by virtually all of the provinces?

  • MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI:

    Yes. And an important issue in this is the role of Islam and how the Sunnis will be willing or able to buy into the language that the drafters have used. We're quite concerned that there's a contradiction in the draft that's being discussed, of course we haven't seen it yet, that Islam is considered a main source of law, but at the same time no law can be contradictory to Islam. So this is – this is quite a problem because the second part that no law can be contradictory temporary to Islam creates a huge opening for interpretations of the religion that can lead to extreme sharia, states like we have to either side of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But it did sound as if both from what Ambassador Khalizhad said and reported that that has been pretty much agreed on. Is that your reading of it?

  • MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI:

    Well, the drafters may have come to an agreement on it, but it sound as though the agreement is quite ambiguous if it is in fact including language about Islam being a main source of law but then also all laws having to reflect back to Islam. Again, it leaves open interpretation and huge ambiguity about what the religion means in practice.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How do you look at this?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    To be honest with you, I'm not really worried about the rise of an Islamic state in Iraq. Iraq is fundamentally a secular society and even the jurists in Najaf, I mean I spent some time in Najaf, even the Shia jurists do not want an Islamic state. They will bluntly tell you they don't want an Iran in Iraq. This really now is about money, I mean fundamentally it's about money. It's not really about —

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Explain that.

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    Well, it's about oil, who gets the money and how do you divide it. And it's about the anxiety of the Sunni Arabs that they will be left out of the division of the spoils; they would be left with a republic made of gravel and sand and nothing else. And this business of Islam being a main source, of course, Iraq is not Sweden; it's always going to have a place for Islam in its public life. It's so in Egypt, it's so Saudi Arabia. None of these countries, which, you know, in the case of Egypt and Syria, they're fairly secular autocracies, but they do not take Islam on. So this country will not take Islam on; it will not publicly oppose it. But I don't think the question of a theocracy is really the issue of Iraq today.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Jim Dobbins on the federalism question, what Ambassador Khalizhad said is that everyone agrees the Kurds get their autonomous region –

  • JAMES DOBBINS:

    Right.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    — but there are a lot of disagreements about what it will take for any other group, namely the Shiites, to chip off their own piece, having to do with the size of it, what size of vote it would take. What do you think it would take for the Sunnis to accept something that would allow the Shiites to form their own autonomous region, and why do the Shiites want their own autonomous region?

  • JAMES DOBBINS:

    Well, it's not clear that all the Shiites do; they're somewhat ambiguous about it frankly. They've got a majority in the country. They don't need federalism. The Sunnis are obviously losers, the Sunnis are majoritarian only in three of the poorest provinces in the whole country; they're left with virtually nothing, particularly if the autonomous region get control over the oil revenues in their respective areas, then the Sunnis are really the big losers. But the Shia don't necessarily need it either. It's a bargaining chip, and to some degree they don't want the Kurds to have something they can't have.

    Federalism is no necessarily the best solution for Iraq. Clearly the Kurdish area is going to have a special status. Whether or not federalism is adopted in the rest of the country remains open, and it's probably wise that this constitution not foreclose the alternative of an otherwise unitary state.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But why did you say it's not the best solution for Iraq?

  • JAMES DOBBINS:

    Because federalism, particularly, federalism particularly a federalism in which the constituent parts own the oil is a formula for breaking the country up. There's no reason for it to remain united at that point. And you break it into its constituent parts, which then subject it to the possibility of foreign interventions and a very destabilizing process in the region as a whole.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What was the — the oil revenues was not mentioned as one of the sticking points. Was there a deal on that?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    No, there is a deal on oil, in fact the deal favors the Sunni Arabs, and the Sunni Arabs, by all the reports I got and I got these in today, are very happy with the outcome, that the oil wealth is invested in the people of Iraq. It's not invested in the provinces of Iraq, and that everyone will share in this. And this has been, by the way, and this was the rallying cry and the political program with Ahmad Chalabi, with the deputy prime minister who is a very prominent secular Shia politician, which is invest the oil of Iraq in the people of Iraq and give everyone a piece of this national wealth and the patrimony of Iraq.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is there a concern that if there is a Shiite autonomous region in the South, that that could turn into a mini theocracy with poor consequences for the rights of women?

  • MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI:

    Absolutely, absolutely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well give us, in practical terms, what that would mean.

  • MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI:

    In practical materials it has huge ramifications for women's rights as they get married, the age for marriage can be reduced to nine. Women can lose their right to divorce their husbands. They can lose their rights to the custody of their children. In practice it has ramifications for almost every other aspect of a woman's life, including education. Schools can be segregated and the quality of schooling for girls can suffer tremendously. Women can be excluded from the workplace, as they were in Iran after the revolution. Yeah.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What do you think are the chances of that happening? We do hear that in some of these towns in the South, whether it's — the rights of women are already being curtailed.

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    Well, look, I mean, fundamentally we're talking about there is much more secularism in Kurdistan than there is the rest of the country, and the Sunni areas now all of a sudden Islam came in; it came in as kind of a substitute for Baathist hegemony. In the Shiite, the further down South you go there's a trace of Iran in influence, there is some temptation. But, look, we have to make these calls and we have to make the best judgment we can make. I don't see theocracy as being the danger stalking Iraq. It's not about theocracy; it's about making these three pieces of Iraq come together on a reasonable accord of what is Iraq, what constitutes this Iraqi polity.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Do you think, Jim Dobbins, that there can be an Iraq that has, whether they're autonomous or not, such distinct areas, sort of culturally, religiously and still be a unified country?

  • JAMES DOBBINS:

    Well, I think that that kind of, that kind of diversity is almost inevitable, given the fact that the state is going to be a fairly weak state. The provinces, it's going to be broken up into provinces even if it isn't broken up into further autonomous areas and those provinces are going to have some degree of autonomy. So whether you call it federalism or not, you are going to have a much more diverse system in which there are going to be socially conservative areas and there are going to be other areas that are more secular. I don't think this is the main point at issue now. Iraq is not going to become an Islamic state on the Iranian model, that's a boogeyman; it's not going to happen.

    The real issue is whether or not the civil war, which is already begun, is going to gradually be held in check as the result of consolidation around a constitution almost regardless of what that constitution says, or whether this process will in the end result in a further polarization, further civil war, and the dissent into complete chaos in the country. That's what this is about.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And what's your prediction on that point?

  • MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI:

    My prediction is that civil society has to play a much larger role than it's been allowed to in this process, and there are going to be fundamental in creating a peaceful transition. If there is an opening for a peaceful transition because of the constitution, civil society has to play a much larger role. They have to be much more engaged with what people like drafters in the national assembly are doing and deciding.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And when you were there, did you, what signs did you see of that — I mean, in other words we have these elites essentially in this room negotiating, meanwhile this insurgency rages outside.

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    Absolutely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Where are the rest of the Iraqis?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    Well, I think you have a good depiction of it. I spent a number of days in the national assembly just listening to these delegates and talking to them about the constitutional process. Then you walk out of the national assembly and you walk into the insurgency of Iraq and it's this duality of Iraq; there's light and there's darkness, there's this elite accord and then there's this insurgency in the streets. But there are some positive signs. Some of the Sunni Arabs are beginning to understand that the historical choice in support of insurgency is morally and politically at a dead end. Some of them have now begun to say that the Jihadists are coming from other Arab countries, are bringing nothing but death and destruction. So you want separation between the Sunni Arabs and the insurgents, between the Sunni Arabs and the Jihadists, because, let's face it, the Jihadists, when they come to Iraq, they have to be guided, and they have to be used and they have to be given support by the locals, those signs are there.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So do you think that this constitution offers the prospect of that, a splitting off the insurgents from the bulk of the Sunni Arabs?

  • FOUAD AJAMI:

    I wish I could tell you that it's so. Indeed we have always hoped that the next thing will end the insurgency, and the insurgency rages on.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's so true. Thank you all three very much.

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