Iraq: Be Careful of What You Wish For

Khalilzad gets his marching orders


The Bush administration only has itself to blame for any sense of disappointment or setback that may follow the failure of Iraq’s parliament to approve a new constitution by the August 15 deadline. After all, it was the administration itself that created not only the deadline, and also worked hard to raise expectation that the delivery of a draft constitution on August 15 would signal “political momentum” that would — more than a little improbably pull the plug on the insurgency. Facing growing domestic doubts over the war, the administration needed to show the American people a light at the end of the tunnel, and the artificial deadline and associated expectations were designed to do just that. After all, if the insurgency were somehow defanged, the U.S. could supposedly start drawing down its troops and ending the slow but steady bleeding of its forces in Iraq. Now, Bush’s spin doctors are going to have to go out there and explain why everything is still on track despite the fact that the Iraqis simply balked on the deadline despite having been told, repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms by Condi Rice, Don Rumsfeld and the President himself, that the August 15 deadline was sacrosanct. (Indeed, some members of the government were still insisting only hours before the postponement that the deadline would be met.)

Zalmay Khalilzad, the “super-ambassador” sent by Bush to intervene in the process and get a constitution delivered on time was in the hall at the time of the postponement vote, reportedly wearing a broad grin, apparently expecting to see his work completed. Instead, he was forced to brush off the failure with a technocratic shrug, telling AFP that the Iraqis had nearly sealed the deal, but needed another week to put the finishing touches on it. Condi Rice and Bush offered the predictable “great progress has been made, we are seeing democracy at work.” Indeed, and sometimes democracy needs another week. Sometimes, of course, it needs more. Not surprisingly, the New York Times quoted an unnamed administration official who was “not allowed to speak publicly” as saying there’s a lot of nervousness in the administration over the situation. Indeed, the constitution they couldn’t agree on was going to fudge the major points of disagreement anyway, leaving open such questions as federalism, autonomous regions, the status of Islam and the clergy and so on. Even then, agreement proved elusive.


Although the Kurds and Shiites appear to be able to agree on the question of autonomy for separate Kurdish and Shiite entities, each with its own large oil economies, they can’t agree over the status of Islam and the Shiite clergy in the constitution. And the Sunni negotiators tend to back the Kurds on the question of Islam, but ferociously reject any idea of federation and autonomy. Just how any of this is going to supposedly weaken the insurgency is very difficult to divine: The insurgency is based on Sunni-Arab nationalism in a community that ruled Iraq from its very inception, and now sees that democracy will result in its traditional domain being dismembered into a Kurdish entity and either a Shiite entity, or a Shiite-dominated central government, both of which it views as a projections of the influence of Iran. The idea that the politics driving the insurgency will somehow be neutralized by a democratic constitution seems to miss the basis of the Sunni concerns. Frankly, the terms of the document as released to various media outlets in the past couple of days suggests that the constitution on offer may be more likely to fuel the insurgency than to neuter it.


Not unaware of the need to address Sunni anxieties, the Bush administration has been insisting that the Kurds and Shiites refrain from using their overwhelming majority in the new parliament (the Sunnis boycotted the election, remember, and even if they’d participated, they make up less than 20 percent of the electorate) to push through a constitution that reflects their own interests and demands. “Getting the Sunnis on board” has become a mantra for U.S. officials concerned that the constitutional process defuse the insurgency. They’ve even managed to get a handful of Sunnis appointed to the committee debating the constitutional plans. Problem is, those Sunnis who are participating in these talks are not representative of the broader community — they haven’t been elected by anyone. (Even then, they’re resisting the federal proposals of the new constitution draft.) But if the process is, indeed, to have any impact on the insurgency, then presumably it would have to involve accomodating the political concerns of the mainstream Sunni nationalist community from which the insurgency draws. So the people they need to be negotiating with are currently outside of the constitutional process, and some are even in the leadership of the insurgency (with whom the U.S. has been talking discreetly, but not negotiating as such).

Unless a new constitution can accomodate the major concerns of a substantial section of the constituency from which the insurgency draws support, then it’s hard to see how it would have any negative impact on the continuing fight. To achieve the sort of Sunni accomodation necessary to isolate the hard-core Islamists among the insurgency, presumably the new constitutional arrangements would have to be negotiated directly with representatives of the Sunni nationalist community, including Baathists and indigenous Islamist groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association — none of whom are involved in the current constitutional process.


The U.S. got a nasty shock even before the deadline was missed. With days to go, the most powerful Shiite politician in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, the Shiite religious party that got the single largest share of the vote in the governing coalition) declared after meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (and presumably getting his consent to make the call) that his party wanted the oil-rich Shiite south of Iraq to be turned into an autonomous Shiite region, just like the oil-rich north would be for the Kurds. If the Shiites can’t impose Sharia law on the rest of the country, they could certainly do it in their own fiefdom — SCIRI dominated local and regional elections there, with the Sadrist movement also making a strong showing. And by cutting a similar deal to the Kurds, they could ensure that a greater share of oil revenues remains exclusively in Shiite hands. And then there’s the power play: SCIRI has to share the spoils of central government power with the more moderate Shiite Islamist Dawa party of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, as well as with representatives of other ethnic factions, but in a Shiite polity in the south it would reign supreme.

Not only was Washington caught flat-footed by a proposal vehemently rejected by Sunni negotiators (and even Jaafari); U.S. officials read the move as consolidating the influence of Iran in Iraq (already substantial in the central government). While Jaafari is historically aligned with Iran and on friendly terms with the leadership in Tehran, he spent the greater part of his exile in London. SCIRI was actually created in Iran in the early 1980s at the behest of the Iranian leadership, and ties remain close. The central government already has a deal with Iran to refine oil pumped in southern Iraq, and an autonomous southern region would likely strengthen those ties. If China and the U.S. are set to engage, over the next few decades, in a new “great game” over increasingly scarce oil supplies, then the idea of southern Iraq’s oil making its way to world markets via Iran, whose oil reserves are largely committed to China, an unappetizing possibility, never mind the geopolitics of it. And the Saudis, whose own oil reserves are located largely in the north east of the country in areas heavily populated by the long-suffering Saudi Shiites, won’t be any more keen to see a flourishing Shiite polity on its doorstep than the Turks will be to see a Kurdish entity. Put it this way, the insurgency is unlikely to have much trouble fundraising in the Arab world for some time yet. So, as much as the extra week the Iraqis voted themselves to achieve a constitutional deal has splashed egg on Washington’s face, it may ironically have also bought them some time to rally opposition to Hakim’s proposal. Khalilzad will be a very busy chap in the next seven days.


A constitution brokered on the basis of deferring the substantial differences via vague clauses that allow questions such as autonomy, federalism and the status of Islam and its clerics to be pursued later may be designed to hold Iraq together for now, but it also potentially sets the constitutional stage for civil war. The disastrous Balkan wars of the early 90s were not a negation of the Yugoslavian constitution, as much as they were the consequence of ethnic demagogues pursuing its opt-out clauses. And, of course, like Yugoslavia in the early 90s, there’s no “strongman” central authority holding Iraq together any longer, either.

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5 Responses to Iraq: Be Careful of What You Wish For

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