Brown: Iraqi Constitution Likely to Be Approved; ‘Creeping Civil War’ Already Started

October 6, 2005

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab constitutions, who has spent considerable time studying the draft Iraqi constitution, says that even though he would have hoped that the constitutional referendum on October 15 would be rejected, it now looks as if "passage of the constitution is extremely likely."

Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the planned election for a new parliament at the end of the year is of almost as much interest as the constitution, assuming the document is approved. He says the new parliament "is going to be very much a wild card" with the possibility of more secular leaders playing a moderating role.

When asked if the passage of the constitution might cause large-scale fighting, he replied: "I think what we’re seeing is a creeping civil war that is not necessarily starting at one particular point in time or over one particular issue. If accounts from the ground are to be believed, there is already some ethnic cleansing going on in some neighborhoods and some areas within Iraq. I don’t think the constitutional referendum is going to be a particular trigger for making that situation much worse, but it’s not going to make it any better."

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 6, 2005.

The last time we talked, you said you were not very optimistic about political developments in Iraq and you were hoping the October 15 constitutional referendum might be defeated, thereby setting up a new set of negotiations that would be more inclusive for the Sunnis as well as the other parties. Do you think that’s at all possible?

It doesn’t look likely right now. What would have to happen to make the constitution fail would be real mobilization of the vote among the Sunnis, among Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, and perhaps some commitment on the part of the insurgency to let the election go forward. And none of those three things seems to be happening. So, at this point, I think passage of the constitution is extremely likely.

Do you think the Sunnis will even vote?

They’re certainly talking as if they will or at least a lot of their leaders are talking as if they will. There is some indication that voter registration has gone up but at this point, even those people who were interested in getting Sunnis to vote are probably focusing far more on the December parliamentary elections than on the constitutional referendum.

Let’s review the constitution (http://www.iraqigovernment.org/constitution_en.htm) again. What are the main contentious points?

Well, there are all sorts of little debates in there, some perhaps not so little. They are about personal status law, about Islam, about human rights and that sort of thing. But the really big central point of contention has to do with federalism, or the division of authority between the central government and the local governments.

Could you get into that? Clearly the Kurds have always wanted as much independence as they could secure. The new element here I guess is the Shiite drive in the south to have as big an area under Shiite control as possible.

That’s exactly what happened. The Kurdish negotiators went in to try and get certain things out of the constitutional process and they basically got everything they wanted. What they wanted to do was to protect the existing economy for Iraqi Kurdistan which is really operating almost as a semi-independent country. It wasn’t a big surprise that they got their wish, but what also happened was those provisions which are available to Iraqi Kurdistan are open to other areas of the country. People were talking before about asymmetrical federalism in which the arrangements would be different for Kurdistan than for the rest of the country and that’s not what happened. So now, any region that wishes to apply can form a region and there is some indication on the part of some of Iraq’s Shiite leaders that they’re interested in submitting just such an application.

So, they would try to create a kind of "Shiastan"?

Yes, you could call it that. It wouldn’t be religious in name or in form but what they would do would be to shape provinces that were predominantly largely Shiite and form a single region there and it would be expected by many observers that the government of that region would take on a much stronger religious coloration than would exist in the country as a whole because it wouldn’t be quite so heterogeneous.

Now, the Sunnis live mostly in the central part of the country, in Baghdad and north and west of Baghdad. What do they have against a sort of Sunni federal state?

Well, I guess there are three things. One is ideological: They do not want to see the division of Iraq with the division of the Arab nation. They are still primarily nationalist in their sentiments-both Iraqi and Arab nationalist. A second problem is that it wouldn’t sort all that out neatly because although there are areas that are predominantly Sunni, it is not the case that there is an easy dividing line between the Sunni and Shiite populations. Sometimes it’s not even clear if there is a deep dividing line among some Iraqi families which are mixed, Sunni and Shiite. And the third problem is that this is a resource-poor area of the country so that the main oil-producing regions would fall in the Kurdish and Shiite regions, and the Sunni region, if it did exist, would be fairly poor.

Now, I thought the constitution calls for sharing of resources.

It does, and like most other things in the constitution, it does so by talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand it says these resources belong to the Iraqi people and that sort of implies a national division of resources. But on the other hand, it says there have been some areas that have been historically discriminated against, by which they probably mean Kurdish regions and the southern regions and for an interim period can or should be redressed. But interim periods can last an awfully long time.

Assuming that the constitution is approved, the next step is the election at the end of December of a new parliament. Now, this election, some people think, is probably more important than the referendum vote. Is that right?

Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far. The referendum vote is pretty important but the results I think are a lot more predictable. It’s either yes or no and it’s almost certainly going to be yes.

Well, is it possible that a new government-a new parliament that would be elected at the end of the year-might be more representative and might change some things?

Yes, the new parliament is going to be very much a wild card. The current parliament is dominated by two electoral alliances, the Kurdish electoral alliances and a largely, but not exclusively Shiite electoral alliance. And those lines may be redrawn. It is not clear that the current Shiite electoral alliance will be able to hold together in its current form. The Kurdish alliance presumably will but there is some tension between the two main parties there. So we may see some new entrants in the electoral field. The other thing that could happen would be greater Sunni participation so that you could have a much more divided parliament, but a parliament that looks a little bit different from the current makeup.

Now, some people have suggested that the party of someone like Ayad Allawi, who was the prime minister in the previous government, might gain more strength because it’s more secular. Do you see much chance of that?

It’s hard to read that situation. I mean, he did go into the January elections as the incumbent and with a fairly sophisticated campaign. It doesn’t seem to me that he has more resources than he had last January. So I’m not sure that he’ll necessarily do much better. He and others are trying to organize a more secular and less ethnically based coalition to run in elections. I think rather than winning the elections, the most they could hope to achieve would be to hold the balance in a new assembly. Right now, there is a very, very narrow majority of this Shiite coalition. If they even lose a few seats then all of a sudden they’ve got to look toward a coalition and that’s where I think a centrist or secularist party might be able to have some cards to play.

Is this pending referendum largely going to be a disappointment to the U.S. if it approves the constitution?

I think it should be, but I don’t think it will be.

You think the government will make this a demonstration of democracy in action?

I think that’s absolutely going to happen. I mean, one of the Bush administration’s few boosts that it got in Iraq was the January elections. So they’re certainly anxious to replay that. Second, the Americans were extremely invested and involved in this process and even though it didn’t go exactly as they wished, it’s still a constitution that I think has got so many American hands on it, that it would be a disappointment for many to see it fail.

What are the main points that the United States would have liked to have seen added to the constitution or subtracted?

There were some things that I think the United States would have liked to see: probably stronger human rights protection, probably stronger protection for women’s rights, and I think the religious elements make a few in the United States uncomfortable. But the interesting thing about the American involvement in the process was the farther along it got, the less the United States got involved in matters of substance and the more it focused on simple process-getting everybody to the table and getting it done on time. So, as long as there was a deal that everybody signed off on by the deadline, or reasonably close to the deadline, was deemed vital. That is sacrificing an awful lot on content. I think that was a mistake, and I think that was a mistake especially on the issue of federalism. But as a result, the main American problem with this document has to do much less with the content than with the fact that it is not supported by a broad national consensus.

Let’s talk a bit about the role of the insurgents in this whole process. Clearly, the insurgents, at least the extremist part of the insurgents led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are rather ruthless. They’re killing Iraqis everywhere, and they’ve more or less declared a religious war against Shiites. Does this have much resonance in the country? How can this be rectified? It’s very hard for moderate Sunnis to speak out, right?

Yes, I mean, there’s no question that some elements of this insurgency are extremely blood-thirsty and almost genocidal in their rhetoric. At the same time, there are other parts of the insurgency that are probably a little more political in their focus and there is some hope that, if not the insurgents themselves, at least their constituency and the environment in which they operate can be pulled back into the system. Obviously, the radicals and people like Zarqawi are trying extremely hard to disrupt that, and I think it’s probably necessary to read their attacks on Shiites as not simply part of an extremist religious ideology, although it is, but they are also an attempt to disrupt this entire process and cause civil war. And in that respect, they are having some success, although some of the Shiite leadership is reacting with remarkable restraint.

And assuming the constitution is passed on the fifteenth of October. What do you think will happen in the following days? Do you expect a growing civil war or will people just expect it as a given?

I think what we’re seeing is a creeping civil war that is not necessarily starting at one particular point in time or over one particular issue. If accounts from the ground are to be believed, there is already some ethnic cleansing going on in some neighborhoods and some areas within Iraq. I don’t think the constitutional referendum is going to be a particular trigger for making that situation much worse, but it’s not going to make it any better.

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