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Why Sunnis Don't Support Iraq’s Constitution

Author: Lionel Beehner
October 12, 2005

Introduction

On October 15, the majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are expected to vote against the draft of the constitution in a nationwide referendum. Others are expected to stay home to signal their disapproval of the document and the process by which it was drafted. Most Sunnis agree the constitution, as currently worded, would diminish their rights and further weaken Iraq by handing over additional power to provinces dominated by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Comprising roughly 20 percent of Iraq’s population, Sunnis say they were marginalized during the draft-writing process and remain suspect of Kurdish and Shiite intentions.

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Their suspicions were confirmed October 1, when Kurds and Shiites tried to ram through parliament a rule change that would virtually have guaranteed the referendum to pass. The rule change was later overturned, but resentment among Sunnis remains. Under pressure from the United States, Shiite and Kurdish leaders later agreed to last-minute concessions to create a panel in Iraq’s next parliament with powers to revise the constitution at a later date, in exchange for Sunni support for the constitution. At least one major Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, reversed its previous stance and said it would urge its members to vote “yes” in the upcoming referendum. Still, the changes in the constitution’s text may be too little, too late, some experts say, to turn around the minds of most Sunni voters who feel left out of Iraq’s political process.

Sunnis’ concerns

In general, Sunnis say the constitution fails to ensure national unity or guarantee rights for Iraq’s minority communities. “We have been a united country and one people since Iraq was born,” said one Sunni voter, speaking to Al-Arabiya TV on October 10. “It’s clear from the deliberations about the constitution that it lays the foundation for sectarianism and the division of the country.” Other Sunnis say the document was drafted in haste by Shiites and Kurds beholden to U.S. interests. “I don’t accept the constitution because it was drafted by America, not by the Iraqi people,” said another Sunni voter. In response, Shiite and Kurdish leaders accuse the Sunni leadership for their unwillingness to compromise. At least a few Shiites suspect the Sunnis are plotting a return to power in a so-called third coup (In 1963 and 1968, Sunni Baathists came to power in Iraq by taking control of the Iraqi military and seizing political power).

Among Sunni voters’ biggest concerns is the issue of federalism. The division of power between the federal government and regional governorates, federalism is seen by some Sunnis as the start of a slippery slope toward Iraq’s breakup. Further, these Sunnis fear that federalism is not only a plot by Shiites and Kurds to give themselves more regional autonomy but also to gain a greater share of Iraq’s oil revenues; Iraq’s largest oil reserves lie in predominantly Shiite and Kurdish areas. Unfortunately for Sunnis, they predominantly reside in resource-poor areas near central Iraq. While the constitution may call for an equitable distribution of these revenues, its wording is at times vague and vulnerable to amendment, says Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Another concern of Sunni voters is the constitution’s wording on national identity. They believe the constitution will undermine their Arab identity and insist that Iraq, one of the original founders of the Arab League in 1945, be explicitly labeled an Arab state, despite its Kurdish, Christian, and other minorities. Part of their insistence stems from Sunni nationalism. Sunni Arabs have controlled the area that is now Iraq for centuries and hence “have a majoritarian mindset and a conviction that political dominion is their birthright,” writes Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in a September 28 Wall Street Journal op-ed. These Sunnis, some of them ex-Baathists or Saddam sympathizers, support a strong, preferably Sunni-led, centralized state.  

Still, some experts say the constitution is of small consequence to most average Sunni voters, many of whom have not even read the document, despite efforts by the United Nations to distribute some 5 million copies around Iraq; a recent UN-sponsored poll found that 77 percent of Iraqis had never seen the constitution. “I think for most Iraqis it’s not a big issue,” says Judith Yaphe, senior fellow at the National Defense University. “The big issues are water, electricity, and security.”

How are Sunnis expected to vote?

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are hardly a monolithic group and have failed to reach a consensus on a common strategy for the referendum. Unlike Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis lack a central religious authority or ayatollah to unify their disparate elements. “Tribal politics is the overwhelming interest,” Yaphe says. “Framed by family, clan, and region—a lot of things shape what Sunnis do.” Some have called for a boycott. More moderate Sunnis have suggested voting “no.” The thinking among this latter group is that “by boycotting they will shoot themselves in the foot,” Yaphe says, referring to the Sunnis’ ill-advised decision to sit out January’s parliamentary elections. “[T]he provisions they dislike in the current draft, particularly its inclusion of strong de-Baathification measures, are a direct result of their boycott blunder,” writes Noah Feldman, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority and current New York University law professor, in an October 9 New York Times Magazine article.

Recent news reports suggest the Conference of the People of Iraq, a major Sunni group, along with the Iraqi Islamic Party, will urge its members to vote “yes.” The turnabout by these Sunni leaders came after recent concessions were granted by Shiites and Kurds to allow parliament additional powers to revise the constitution. It’s unclear the Muslim Clerics Association, a highly influential group of Sunni scholars and clerics, or the Iraqi National Dialogue, a coalition of Sunni political parties, will urge its members to vote on October 15.

Experts say a small handful of Sunnis, including members of the Sunni-led insurgency, have no interest in participating in Iraq’s political process.Many are former Baathists who are joining the Iraqi security forces and waiting until the political process fails and Iraq becomes further destabilized, says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service. They will then emerge—perhaps violently—and present themselves as the only solution to the nation's security problem.

Then there are those among the Sunni leadership looking beyond the October 15 referendum at parliamentary elections—scheduled for December 15—as a greater opportunity to improve the political situation for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. “The emergence of a credible elected Sunni leadership would be a major step forward for Iraqi politics,” Feldman writes, “which have so far been hampered by the absence of anyone who can claim to speak for the ordinary Sunni and deliver those insurgent leaders who may be inclined to compromise.”

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