Iraq Officials Hammer Out Constitution -- Delicately

Times Staff Writers

In buildings with windows crisscrossed by duct tape to protect against flying glass, Iraq’s would-be founding fathers are hunkered down seeking to draft a constitution. With nine weeks remaining before their deadline, they are only now getting started on the historic document meant to unify a fractious country.

The 55 politicians, elected just four months ago, face a tricky task. Go too slow and political momentum may be lost. Go too fast and risk a flawed constitution -- or worse, civil war.

So far, Sunni Muslim Arabs have no meaningful representation on the committee charged with drafting the document, although Shiite Muslim and Kurdish political and tribal leaders have promised a solution to that sensitive issue as early as Thursday.


Many observers warn that rushing the extraordinary document could irrevocably damage relations among Iraqis, raising the specter of full-blown sectarian conflict. U.S. officials, looking for an exit strategy, are urging lawmakers to hurry up and get it done by the Aug. 15 due date.

“The stakes are very high,” said South African lawyer Nicholas “Fink” Haysom of the United Nations Constitutional Support Unit, which is following negotiations and providing technical assistance to the Iraqis.

Committee members are working against a backdrop of death threats, assassinations and suicide attacks. They also are inherently suspicious of one another, divided as they are by ethnicity, religion and language.

Now they have to map out how power will be divided between Baghdad and the provinces. They have to draw sensitive geographic boundaries. But foremost, they have to address such fundamental issues as the role of religion, human rights and the division of resources in a constitution that will govern relations not only among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds but between neighbors and husbands and wives.

“With very hard questions, you don’t make hard decisions until you’re right up on deadline,” a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said recently. “We think it’s possible to get it done.”

The toughest issues appear to be the political inclusion of Sunni Arabs, who as a group are suspicious and marginalized; the role of religion in Iraqi law; and control of oil-rich Al Tamim and other provinces.

“The critical issues are political cans kicked down the road,” said Wayne White, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The assumption is that the further along the political process, the easier it becomes. My feeling is the opposite.”

Beyond drafting the constitution, the committee must educate a traumatized populace about the implications of it. After the document’s completion, it is scheduled to be put to a public vote in mid-October.

Already, dreamy government-produced TV ads about a peaceful future with a permanent constitution run on local channels. In the mosques, clerics frequently talk about the importance of the constitution. Some religious and social organizations have begun grass-roots campaigns to tell Iraqis that to attain their independence, they must realize their common identity in the constitution.

But town hall meetings and other large public gatherings will be a challenge to pull off in some areas, especially those dominated by Sunnis. Since the Cabinet was formed April 28, insurgents have violently targeted civilians, often hitting large crowds.

While acknowledging the political and diplomatic hurdles ahead, many members of the constitutional panel insist they will defy the skeptics and finish drafting the constitution before the deadline.

“Iraqis know it will be a way to provide justice for everybody,” said Humam Hamoodi, a Shiite with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hamoodi became committee chairman a few weeks ago and has two deputies, Fuad Masoom, a Kurd, and Adnan Janabi, a Sunni.

Despite disparate starting points, Hamoodi said, all groups are motivated by the same logic: A constitution means independence.

Inside the convention center where the committee works, the corridors of power have tea-stained, threadbare carpets. Clad in expensive Italian suits or regal dishdasha robes, the politicians are surrounded by bodyguards as they hurry to and from their hourlong debates in the fortressed Green Zone.

“It’s a difficult task” to collectively create “the agreement that broadly shapes their common destiny,” said the U.N.'s Haysom.

One legal provision gives de facto veto power to any of Iraq’s three major population groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The proposed constitution fails if two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces reject it in the planned referendum.

If the document is approved, new elections will be held in December, possibly paving the way for the departure of American troops. If it is rejected, the National Assembly will be dissolved, triggering new elections and rewinding the drafting process back to the beginning.

“The Kurds start from their own fears. The Sunnis would like to go to the past and emphasize our Arab origin, and the Shiites talk about their misfortune and the injustice that was done to them,” Hamoodi said.

Despite their differences, Hamoodi and others on the panel say they can write a draft within the allotted time. But some observers disagree.

“The constitution is permanent and for all the people. For that reason, they should go slow,” said Phillip Walker, an expert in comparative law in the Arab world. “Procrastination may not be such a bad thing.”

Since Iraq’s national election in January, the consistent message from the Shiite-led government has been conciliation with Sunnis, despite the Sunni anger that partly fuels the insurgency. But Sunni Arabs hold only two of the 55 seats on the committee.

The other parties “have to walk the talk and actually include them. Otherwise, violence will worsen,” said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither in numbers nor in prominence are they seated at the table.”

Although Phillips believes political momentum is important, he’s less convinced that the deadline is realistic. “If it took 90 days to agree on a Cabinet, it’s hard to imagine the interim government will be able to stick to the timetable.”

Nathan Brown, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written extensively on the Iraqi constitutional process, noted that the South African Constitution -- considered a textbook case of doing it right -- required four to five years in relative political calm.

U.S. officials publicly reject skepticism and continue to insist that the Aug. 15 deadline can and should be met, even though the Iraqis are entitled to extend the deadline for six months if necessary. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice underscored the sense of urgency during a meeting last week in Washington with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, U.S. officials said.

Apart from the deadline issue, the Bush administration -- with 140,000 troops in the country -- has tried to keep a low profile as the committee begins its work. Although U.S. officials say they are not getting involved in the specifics of the drafting process, there is evidence they want to ensure that the document adheres to such principles as freedom of religion and the federal nature of the Iraqi state.

The most controversial issues for the Iraqis to consider are the nature of federalism and the role of Islam in the constitution.

Though there is wide agreement on a federal Iraq, exactly how power will be divided between the capital and the regions is likely to arouse considerable debate. This is especially true in regard to the northern region of Kurdistan, which has been largely autonomous since 1991.

Arabs resist the Kurdish ambition to establish the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as the capital of the region, which they imagine as largely independent. Who will control the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, is a related question.

Although the future of Kirkuk will not be decided in the constitution, the mechanism for its government and revenue-sharing will probably be addressed.

“What we need to put in the document is not whether Kirkuk is Kurdish, Arab or otherwise,” Janabi said. “What we have to say is who [decides], the government or the regions.”

Most Iraqis agree that Islam will be the country’s official religion, but its place in the rule of law is contentious. Kurds are generally more secular than Shiites, some of whom demand that Islam govern family matters and that Islamic law be the only source of legislation.

“This is a very sensitive issue, and we’d like to advise the secular people not to press too hard on this so as not to force the other side to be militant,” Hamoodi said. “If we can reach a middle point, we can please everybody.”

That middle point, he added, is in the existing interim constitution approved last year as the U.S.-led provisional authority returned sovereignty to Iraq. That document -- hammered out under U.S. occupation and applauded in Washington -- is widely expected to serve as a basis for the new constitution.

“It’s tarnished goods, but it has its value, because it’s confronted the big issues and offers itself as a starting point,” said Brown of the Carnegie Endowment.

Some speculate that the Kurds and the Shiites have already struck back-room deals on the main points.

Hamoodi and Faraj Haydari, a senior official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Baghdad, said the panel had already agreed on core principles, including federalism and human rights.

U.S. officials said the prolonged struggle to form a government was, at least in part, a shadow debate on the constitution, so some key appointments in the transitional government have signaled the direction the drafters may take on contentious issues.

“We understood what they were doing,” a senior State Department official said. “In the selection of individuals, they were actually carving out compromises at the same time on the extent of federalism that will exist, the extent of Sunni inclusion in the process and on other issues. That’s why we let them go on for as long as we did.”

In this political process, “there’s a place for openness and transparency,” Haysom said. “There’s also a place for compromises and trade-offs, and those will obviously take place in back rooms.”

Or dining rooms. Inside the Green Zone, political cliques cluster around cafeteria tables for informal negotiations during midday breaks. Makeshift walls ensure privacy and keep journalists at bay. But occasionally, local TV reporters sneak into the political pen, fetching politicians who spin the talk of the day for the waiting cameras.

“The constitution is not just for Shiites or Kurds or Sunnis or Christians,” Haydari said. “It belongs to everybody.”

Roug reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writers Salar Jaff, Shamil Aziz, Caesar Ahmed and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.