The steady drip of U.S. casualties in Iraq is taking its toll on support for the war among Americans. With poll numbers plummeting, the Bush administration realizes it cannot deploy troops in Iraq indefinitely. President Bush should announce that the United States will start negotiating the drawdown of U.S. forces as soon as Iraqis adopt a permanent constitution and hold new elections.
Establishing a clear milestone would assure the American people. It would also encourage Iraqis to get serious about assuming full sovereignty and sticking to the timetable for their country's political transition.
It is time that Iraq's new political leaders roll up their sleeves and get to work. The Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq's interim constitution, envisioned elections in January 2005. The interim government would then appoint a constitutional committee to draft Iraq's permanent constitution by Aug. 15. The draft would be disseminated, debated and approved by the assembly before a popular referendum by Oct. 15. And Iraqis would go to the polls to elect a new government for a five-year term on Dec. 15.
Watching Iraqis brave threats of death and go to the polls was inspirational. But momentum was lost when it took almost three months for the new government to be formed. When the constitutional committee was finally appointed, only two of its 55 members were Arab Sunnis. Recognizing the importance of including Arab Sunnis who largely boycotted the elections and are sympathetic to the insurgency, the government added 15 Arab Sunnis to the committee. But because the Shi'a-Kurd-dominated government objected to the presence of former Baathists, the committee's membership was only agreed to last week.
It is hard to fathom how Iraqis can agree on the complex details of constitutional power-sharing by Aug. 15. Delays in forming the government and appointing the constitutional committee revealed the extent to which Iraqi politics is defined by regionalism and the degree of distrust between Iraqi groups. Given Iraq's history of confrontation, negotiations over the constitution are sure to sharpen differences.
The drafting process does not, however, have to entrench hard-line positions. It could be a tool for national dialogue, reconciliation and conflict resolution. A deal may be in the offing if Iraqis are willing to compromise: Arab Shi'a will have to forgo making Islamic law the only basis for legislation; Arab Sunnis must accept that they no longer control Iraq's institutions; Iraqi Kurds must relinquish their dream of independence and sole control of oil in Kirkuk; Iraqi Turkmen and Assyrians must recognize they reside in federal Iraqi states dominated by Arabs and Kurds.
Iraqis face enormously difficult decisions about their future, but some common ground already exists. Most recognize the benefits of a system that it federal, democratic and pluralistic.
The problem with Iraqi governance has always been the centralization of power. To prevent this from happening again, Iraqis concur on the need for power-sharing between the national government and federal Iraqi states. Many espouse a system of constitutional federalism in which each level of government has a guarantee, anchored in the constitution, against encroachment by the other. They also recognize that the separation of powers and checks and balances among branches of the national government can also limit power and curb abuses. To work, the constitution must define a system of governance that advances the aspirations of ethnic and sectarian groups and is administratively viable.
Federalism is a voluntary association between equal groups that decide it is in their common interest to form a unified state. The Kurds are not the only ones to embrace federalism. Arab Shi'a also see federalism as an antidote to abuses by the national government. So do some Arab Sunnis who recognize that federalism can ensure the interests of their group. Federalism goes hand-in-hand with minority rights' protection and promotion to limit the potential for arbitrary dominance by the majority.
Some Iraqis are concerned that federalism would compromise national unity and promote fragmentation. To address their concerns, federal Iraqi states should be composed using geographic not ethnic criteria. The constitution should ascribe to Iraq all the characteristics of a state such as a flag, anthem and official languages (i.e. Arabic and Kurdish). All residents of Iraq would be Iraqi citizens.
But consistent with the principle of decentralization, all powers not specifically assigned to the national government would be assumed by federal Iraqi states. It is essential, however, to preserve a meaningful role for the national government in, for example, the fields of foreign affairs, fiscal policy, border control and customs collection.
While Iraqis agree today on most of the matters described above, there are deeply divergent views on how to resolve hot-button issues that threaten to break consensus.
Iraq's constitutional committee must address the role of religion in Iraq's future governance. Particularly problematic will be the desire of some Shi'a to impose Shari'a Law, an Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, on family matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Iraqi women are sure to balk at measures diminishing their equal rights.
The committee must determine how to manage Iraq's oil wealth. Shi'a in the south want to control the vast Rumaila oil fields. Kurds in the north want the oil in Kirkuk. Arab Sunnis, who reside in parts of Iraq where there is no oil, seek a percentage of total revenues. Even if Iraqis come up with a revenue sharing formula for existing oil income, they must also grapple with what to do with reserves that have not yet come on-line.
Demobilizing militia groups is another serious problem. Mokatadar al-Sadr's Mahdi Army refuses to disband. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Brigade also refuses to disarm. Since Kurdish peshmarga - "those who walk before death" - have played a key role defending Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein as well as Turkish forces, Kurdish leaders resist efforts to co-opt peshmarga into national security structures.
As a senior adviser to the U.S. State Department working on the Future of Iraq Project - a post from which I resigned on Sept. 11, 2003 - we discussed all these issues. To be sure, there was no silver bullet to solve all of Iraq's problems. But because the Bush administration dismissed planning that was under way and instead went to war with no plan at all, Iraqi are still debating the very same questions more than three years later. Only now, the political transition is marred by worsening insurgent violence. Arguably, the insurgency might not have occurred at all if the Bush administration had moved quickly to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis soon after toppling the status of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.
There is an old adage: "When you're digging a hole, stop digging." It took the Bush administration several years to realize its mistakes in Iraq. Amazingly, some U.S. officials still look at Iraq as a smashing success. As a result of its mistakes, the United States made a hard job even harder.
What happens in Iraq will shape U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. Despite my fervent desire for U.S. troops to come home, I am convinced that their precipitous departure would be disastrous, sparking conflict between Iraqis and igniting broader regional conflict. Moreover, failure in Iraq would have global implications with America's retreat emboldening radicals and extremists in the Muslim world.
It is in America's national interest to stay actively involved in Iraq - at least for now. But the Bush administration should avoid the appearance of an open-ended commitment by using Iraq's political transition as the milestone for gauging progress.
Meanwhile, the United States can still play a constructive role. Acting discreetly, it should promote dialogue between Iraqis on the constitution, impressing upon them the risk of ethnic or sectarian conflict further escalating civil war. It should offer to assist Iraqi and United Nations efforts in drafting and building national consensus in support of the constitution.
The United States should also establish and international "Contact Group" consisting of UN Security Council permanent members, major donors and front-line states to assist the training of Iraqi security forces and support economic reconstruction and job creation.
Even if Iraqis compromise and consent, Bush must confront the real possibility that Iraq's sectarian strife may intensify and that the spiral of deadly violence could erupt into a full scale civil war. In this event, the Bush administration will have to think long and hard about its next move.
Iraqi Kurds, who insist they have no place in Iraq if Islamicists take over or if federalism is rejected, may prove to be America's last and best friends in Iraq. If chaos and violence erupts, the United States may have to withdraw its forces north of the 36th parallel, draw a line in the sand at the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and try to salvage something from its botched policy in Iraq.
David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also author of a new book, "Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco" (Westview Press/Perseus Books).