Us and Them: The Painful Birth of Iraq’s Constitution

by on August 16th, 2005

January 30 was the first most important day for Iraq. I watched footage of the incredible turnout that election day with my friend, who was deploying to Iraq the following week. The people who traveled for days and stood in line for hours to cast a vote for the first time in their lives gave my Marine friend encouragement in our mission there.

Yesterday was the second most important day for Iraq. August 15 was the deadline for submission of the constitutional charter, which would be subject to a referendum vote on October 15th. If 2/3 of the voters in three of the provinces vote against the constitution, the National Assembly will then be dissolved, and the process would begin all over again. If it is approved, national elections for a permanent government will take place in December.

My friend’s tour will be over in a few weeks, and he is not particularly encouraged. The Iraqi parliament voted to extend the deadline for the charter by seven days. The problem is not with taking a few days to agree on an extremely important document. Instead, it is the mentality with which negotiations are being approached. The unsettled issues are apparently the role of Islam, distribution of oil wealth and federalism. These are not insurmountable questions.

What is insurmountable is the mentality of “us and them.” One Sunni member of the constitutional committee stated yesterday, “There were big points of disagreement, not between us and others but between the others themselves.” This mentality of “us” and “others” is precisely the problem.

All three of the aforementioned issues (Islam, oil and federalism) are just the outcomes of a mentality of trying to grab the biggest piece of the pie based on tribal identity. This mentality is prevalent in societies where ethnic, cultural or religious diversity have been exploited for political gains. The direct outcome is usually a quest for reparations or revenge. Instead of moving on to create a new start with a strong foundation, embattled societies often wallow in their pain and miss their chance at success.

This is visible in Iraq, where the quest for federalism by the Kurds and the Shiites is reflective of the recent past, in which the two groups were marginalized and persecuted. (Federalism is not a bad option, unless it is adopted as a tool for eventual breakup.) It is also visible in the perception that oil wealth must be secured to benefit the local area, rather than the entire country. A weak central government, and a divided country will produce a stillborn Iraq, which will be plagued with power struggles and issues of secession.

To agree on a constitution that will nurture, not stifle, the delicate development, Iraqis must see themselves first as Iraqi citizens, and only later as Arab, Kurd, Sunni or Shia.

If this national assembly does not have the mindset required to produce a meaningful Iraqi constitution, then it is best to dissolve and re-elect the assembly than settle for a prop. It is more important to get it right, than to get it “right now.”

As Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari noted, “We should not be hasty regarding the issues and the constitution should not be born crippled.” The constitution must be meaningful – a living, breathing document that can be a foundation for the long road towards a real democracy in a united Iraq.

John McDonald