Consensus and Iraq’s constitution

TODAY’S HISTORIC referendum in Iraq will almost certainly bring ratification of the draft constitution, but it won’t be enough to resolve the paralyzing divisions that could lead to civil war.

Millions of Iraqis will vote on the constitution even though they have not seen it, much less studied it. Its provisions have been negotiated and modified right up to the eve of the balloting. Many Iraqis, weary of terrorism and violence, will vote “yes” simply in hopes that it will produce a government able to bring stability.

But Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority will largely vote “no,” fearing the draft constitution will entrench their disempowerment and, by radically decentralizing power and revenue to Kurdish and Shiite regions, eventually break apart the country.

For weeks, the constitutional referendum has been shaping up as a polarizing replay of the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, when almost all Kurds voted for the Kurdish coalition, most Shiites voted for the United Iraqi Alliance (a coalition of Shiite Islamist parties) and most Sunnis boycotted. In this case, the Kurds and Shiites overwhelmingly support a constitution mainly drafted by their parties, while most Sunni political, tribal and religious groups have been campaigning against the document.


The constitution’s Sunni opponents will likely fail. Until recently, it seemed they could muster the two-thirds “no” vote in three provinces required to defeat it. But just three days ago, last-minute negotiations among Kurdish and Shiite representatives and the most prominent Sunni party (among a badly fragmented array of them) brought what was hailed as a “breakthrough” compromise.

The new deal moderates the provisions for de-Baathification, reaffirms Iraqi unity and sets up a panel in the new parliament with the power to propose broad revisions to the constitution. This compromise addressed some Sunni Arab concerns, eased the climate of polarization and enabled some Sunni politicians to call for a “yes” vote.

The Bush administration, and particularly its skillful ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, deserve credit for bringing the Sunnis into the constitutional deliberations earlier this summer, after their electoral boycott had largely shut them out of parliament. Khalilzad tried to facilitate a broad constitutional bargain, and then, when the constitution was finally adopted by parliament without Sunni support in August, he fought until this final moment for wider constitutional consensus.

However, this week’s agreement is only a beginning. Most weighty Sunni political forces were left out of the last-minute negotiations. Those Sunni leaders who did sign on have already been targeted for assassination.

If today’s referendum is not to further polarize the country along ethnic lines, the spirit of compromise will have to be greater. The constitution will need to be revised quickly to allow more former Baath Party members (which is to say, a good swath of the Sunni elite) to run for and hold office. It must not permit the creation of a single Shiite super-region stretching across the entire southern half of the country, with 80% of the country’s oil resources.

And Sunnis will never accept the constitutional provisions that leave current oil and gas fields under the control of the national government but give the regions control of any new finds. Giving regional governments control of all new fields would deprivethe Sunni provinces of their fair share of resources.

Many of the vague elements of the constitution will also need to be specified. All of this must come through more inclusive negotiations that yield a broader consensus, and this will require artful new mediation.

Still, this week’s compromise moves toward the genuine power sharing that is Iraq’s only hope for stability. If that promise is to be realized, the next round of mediation must involve not just the U.S. but the U.N., and perhaps some role for Iraq’s Arab neighbors.


Once the votes are in and the constitution is adopted, only weeks will remain until the Dec. 15 elections for the new parliament. It is vital that the Sunni communities participate fully so that they will be fully represented in the hard bargaining that lies ahead over the character and power balance of the new state.

Only then will the shattered and aggrieved Sunni minority have representatives with the political weight to press Sunni concerns effectively, and the legitimacy to make painful and sustainable concessions. Without such real inclusion, the insurgency will not diminish, and Iraq will continue to founder.

LARRY DIAMOND is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq” (Times Books, 2005).