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Keep the Sunnis involved

THE MARATHON NEGOTIATIONS over a draft constitution for Iraq displayed the nation’s deep political fissures and gave ammunition to those who doubt the country can hold together. The basic law of the land is still a draft that will be voted on in October; if two-thirds of the electorate in any three of the country’s 18 provinces objects to the constitution, it goes down in defeat. That would put legislators back at the start of the drafting process and delay elections for a permanent legislature. It also probably would keep the violence high and threaten the country’s fragile unity.

Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20% of the population, long held out against the version written by Kurds, who account for about 20%, and Shiite Arabs, who make up about 60%. The main objection of the Sunnis was the question of federalism and the fear that Shiites could have autonomy across much of the south -- and control of much of Iraq’s oil -- as the Kurds do in the north. Key questions such as how to divide revenues from future oil discoveries were left for another day. Also of concern is the contradictory language on the role of Islam. The draft leaves open the possibility that the supreme court could include Islamic clerics, which would be a terrible mistake.

The Bush administration pushed for a draft as evidence that the political process is working, which together with training Iraqi security forces is a condition for withdrawing some of the 138,000 U.S. troops. President Bush called a key Shiite leader during the talks and urged him to keep negotiating with the Sunnis. To Washington’s anguish, disagreements among the three factions were so great that negotiators required an extra week to seek compromises. But that was not enough; nor was an additional six days. Ultimately, the Kurds and Shiites presented the draft to the National Assembly, with Sunnis boycotting.

When Afghanistan’s constitution was adopted in 2004, some of the same objections were raised as those being heard in Iraq: too much power for clerics, not enough guarantees of rights for women. Both documents recognize two official languages -- Pashto and Dari in Afghanistan, Arabic and Kurdish in Iraq. There are also quarrels in both countries over how much power the central government should possess. In both, the interpretation of the constitution and the willingness of citizens to accept judicial rulings will matter more than the actual language.

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The level of violence is higher in Iraq and complicated by the fact that most of the insurgents belong to a specific sect -- the Sunnis. If Sunnis feel shut out of the political process, there’s little incentive for them to lay down their weapons. Shiites and Kurds should understand the need to placate Sunnis and try to persuade them not to vote the constitution down in October. Better to amend the constitution than see Iraq torn apart.


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