Democracy or disintegration?

One day after the formal presentation by a majority of Iraq’s elected leaders of their proposed constitution, opinions appeared divided over whether the draft would lead to greater democracy or the virtual, if not actual, disintegration of the country.

While US officials predictably put the most positive spin on the charter, which will now be submitted to the Iraqi electorate for a vote Oct 15, other analysts warned that its provisions for regional autonomy would hasten the country’s descent into a sectarian civil war that could eventually draw in neighbouring states.

The fate of the new constitution remains uncertain. Under current law, the constitution is automatically rejected if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it. But the new constitution indeed guarantees that autonomy to the Kurds and, more significantly, establishes the groundwork for offering it to as many as nine provinces in the overwhelmingly Shia south. But that arrangement is anathema to many in the Sunni community who favour a strong central government if, for no other reason, than the Sunni heartland has few natural resources compared to the oil and gas industries based in both the north and the south.

The Sunnis, who are believed to make up about 20 per cent of Iraq’s total population of about 25 million, hold overwhelming majorities in two western provinces and a smaller majority in a third and thus, ironically, could conceivably single-handedly defeat the charter in the October referendum. In addition, however, Moqtada Sadr, the young Shiite cleric whose Mehdi paramilitary forces have recently flexed their muscles against rival Shiite militias, has also indicated strong opposition to the constitution, which he has reportedly called part of an “Iranian plot” to assert control over the southern part of the country.

Some analysts in and out of the administration argue that the possibility of the constitution’s rejection may be a blessing because it may encourage more Sunnis to participate in the political process, if only to assure the charter’s defeat in the referendum. Since the Jan 30 elections, persuading the Sunnis to participate in the process has been a top priority for a Bush administration which, guided by its military commanders, has become increasingly persuaded that the war in Iraq has no military solution.

Indeed, the visit earlier this month to Baghdad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Thursday’s telephone call by Bush to SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, were aimed above all at persuading him to compromise with the Sunni leadership. If the constitution is

defeated in the referendum, Fareed Zakaria, former Foreign Affairs managing editor and editor of Newsweek International, told ABC News’ “This Week” Sunday, “Sunnis (will) have demonstrated that they have real power. And they’ll be re-incorporated. That the good-news scenario.”

“The bad-case scenario,” he went on, “they’re not able to defeat it... (Then the Sunnis) retain all the alienation, all the antipathy, and forge ahead not defeating it peacefully, but defeating it the way they’re trying now, which is violently and through civil war.” — IPS