Federal Power-Sharing in Iraq Essential to Prevent Civil War, Concludes Council Special Report

April 25, 2005

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April 25, 2005 - While Iraq’s elections were a watershed in the country’s history, the real fight for power will be over Iraq’s permanent constitution. This fight is just getting under way.

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Power-Sharing in Iraq, written by David L. Phillips, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Council’s Center for Preventive Action, recommends a “federal system of governance that preserves Iraq as a unitary state, advances the aspirations of ethnic and sectarian groups, and is administratively viable. Federal Iraq states should control all affairs not explicitly assigned to the national government.” The report examines hot-button issues such as ownership of Iraq’s energy wealth, disarming militias, the status of Kirkuk, individual and group rights, and the role of Islam in Iraqi governance. It also outlines roles for the United States and the United Nations.

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Iraqis should make every effort to meet the August 15 deadline for finalizing the constitution. To this end, Iraq’s political leaders should move quickly to compose a constitutional commission that includes all Iraqi ethnic and sectarian groups, especially Arab Sunnis who have so far been left out of the political process. Iraqis must have the opportunity to debate and assume ownership of Iraq’s permanent constitution. If the draft is not ready by June 30, the assembly should, in compliance with article 61 of the Transitional Administrative Law, consider a delay of up to 6 months.

The best way to balance the competing demands of democracy and unity is through a republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic structure that separates powers and provides check and balances. “Democracy involves much more than voting. It is about the distribution of political power through institutions and laws that guarantee accountable rule,” the report concludes. The national government would be assigned specific authorities such as national defense, fiscal policy, and foreign affairs with other powers decentralized to regional and local governments.

The report also recommends that:

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  • The “new Iraq” would be divided into 5 or 6 federal Iraqi states, one of them being Baghdad.
  • The national government should control Iraq’s oil wealth with revenues returned to federal Iraqi states based on their percentage of the population.
  • Peshmarga fighters and militia groups such as the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, should be renamed and co-opted into national, state, and local security structures with local police reflecting the ethnic composition of communities that they serve.
  • The constitution should include a bill of individual rights as well as specific measures to protect and promote the group rights of Iraqi Turkmen and Chaldo-Assyrians.

The report also suggests that the constitution establish “Islam as the official religion of Iraq and requiring federal legislation to be consistent with the universally agreed tenets of Islamic law. The constitution should not, however, require the application of Islamic law to family matters, such as marriage, divorce, and family inheritance...Family law should be left to federal Iraqi states, which may enact any law they see fit, subject to the requirement that they do not violate the rights, including women’s rights and the rights of equal protection, that are enshrined in the Iraqi constitution.”

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To ensure that the political process goes forward in relative safety, the report concludes that U.S. and coalition forces are needed in Iraq until a permanent constitution is adopted. To foster compromise and consent, it recommends that the United States:

  • Maintain a dialogue with all Iraqi political parties, impressing upon them the repercussions of dominance by any one group, and the risk of sectarian or ethnic conflict escalating to civil war;
  • Assist Iraqi efforts, as requested, in drafting and building national consensus in support of the constitution;
  • Establish an international “contact group” consisting of UN Security Council permanent members, major donors, and front-line states to assist Iraq’s political transition, reconstruction, and training of Iraqi security services;
  • Support a role for the UN to provide resources and legal expertise to assist drafting the constitution, coordinate input from international NGOs; and facilitate a national dialogue on the constitution; and
  • Urge Iraq’s government to use a combination of carrots and sticks to encourage more constructive behavior by Iraq’s neighbors.

Power-Sharing in Iraq will be translated into Arabic and distributed to the Iraqi government and National Assembly.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that members, students, interested citizens, and government officials in the United States and other countries can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.


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