After several attempts to delay a decision, talks to agree a new Iraqi constitution broke down this week as a result of the Sunni minority’s rejection of a federal Iraq. The trade unions have registered their protests that the proposed constitution does not recognise the right to strike, or the rights of women (giving power to Islamic courts through shari’a law).
The constitution will go to referendum in October, without endorsement by the Sunni Arab representatives in the negotiations.
Sunni leaders call for the constitution to be rejected — and according to the UN-sponsored plan, if three out of eighteen provinces do reject it by a two thirds majority, the constitution will fall. Sunnis have a majority in three provinces.
The sticking point in the negotiations was fundamentally the question of whether Iraq should be a federal or centralised state. Other obstacles had been partially overcome, at least on paper. For example the agreement that Islam should be “a basic source” of legislation, rather than “the source”. On the other hand this statement is contradicted by a clause which reads, “no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam”. The constitution is far from being an adequate framework for creating a bourgeois democracy in Iraq. But then though one could hope for the best outcome it never made sense to trust to Blair and Bush and their Iraqi clients to secure a fully democratic Iraq.
Sunni representatives were not prepared to accept federalism — meaning, in particular, autonomy for the Kurds in the north, and a degree of self-government for the largely Shi’a south.
It would seem the negotiators made intense efforts to keep the Sunnis involved in the political process. But Kurds — who have suffered terrible oppression under previous Iraqi governments, especially Saddam Hussein’s, which slaughtered them in their tens of thousands — were, understandably, not prepared to abandon their demands. The fear now is that the situation could spiral out of control, and the country descend into civil war. If the constitution is rejected in October — which is entirely possible even if a big majority of Iraqis vote for it (owing, ironically, to the effectively federal structure of the referendum itself) — it will be very difficult for the various political factions, with their American and UN backers, to “go back to the drawing board.”
Negotiators all along complained that the US was forcing the pace (pointing out, for instance, that the American constitution took much longer to write). But it is not clear that a slower movement would have changed the outcome, which flows from the increasingly sectarian nature of Iraqi politics. Iraq is a (British) colonially constructed entity; but in the post-war period a surprisingly strong national identity was created. Even as late as the Iran-Iraq war, national identities proved stronger than sectarian-religious ones: the Iranian government attempted to appeal to co-religionists in Iraq — to Shi’a Muslims — without any success. It seems in the latter stages of the Saddam regime, and even more so since its fall, sectarian-communalist fault lines have been widening in Iraqi society. The Sunni “resistance”, for instance, has increasingly targeted Shi’as on a purely sectarian basis.
Calls for a no vote in the referendum in October can be expected to be accompanied by violence from the “resistance” — which threatened to kill anyone who voted in the elections in January this year.
Fundamentally, Sunni opposition to federalism — the same dynamic which underlies the “insurgency” — comes from the fear of losing power and privilege to the Shi’a majority. The Sunni majority areas were the base of support for the old regime, and Sunnis have been the most privileged section of Iraqi society since colonial times. But the Sunni areas have no oil.
Radical Shi’a groups, such as that led by Moqtada al-Sadr, are also calling for opposition to the constitution, on the grounds that it is insufficiently Islamic. In fact the dominant forces within the interim government are Islamist parties, especially those backed by Iran. It is an extraordinary fact that one of the chief beneficiaries of American occupation has been the Islamic Republic in Iran, which now has enormous influence in Iraq.
But it would be wrong to think that Iraq has already decayed into warring sectarian and religious groups. There has been a frightening growth of ultra-conservative Islamic movements, including violent extremist variants. But there are strong anti-sectarian and secular traditions in Iraqi society, and there are movements which cross the Sunni/Shi’a/Kurd/Turkoman etc divides.
Principally, there is the workers’ movement. Trade unions have registered their protests that If Iraq is to avoid slipping into civil war, the workers’ organisations will be vitally important. Our solidarity can help it.