Asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi reportedly replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.” The same could be said — with a little exaggeration — of American democracy: if the United States can’t even get it right, how can we expect, say, Iraq, to?
And yet, the goal of a functioning Iraqi democracy came closer this week when the U.S.-approved Iraqi ruling body signed off on a interim constitution enshrining, among other Western norms, freedom of religion and speech, direct elections, and states’ rights under a federal power. The document declares Islam as the nation’s official religion and “a source” — not the source — of Iraq’s laws.
But the ink was still wet when powerful Shiite Muslim majority leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had of course already delayed the signing over the weekend, called the document invalid unless and until elections are held next January to establish Iraqi-elected leaders. If he continues to object to U.S.-Iraqi attempts at establishing a new government, his political clout could rally millions of Iraqis to protest.
Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle explains how the draft constitution affects the dynamics in Iraq:
A clause apparently added at the last moment gives U.S. commanders supreme control over Iraqi forces and essentially allows U.S. troops free rein over Iraqi territory until a second constitution is approved and elections are held.
“This is likely to be fairly divisive,” said Bathsheba Crocker, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a co-author of a Pentagon-commissioned study of Iraq issued in July. “What are the rules of engagement for U.S. forces? It appears there are none.”
“This solves the legal problem for the United States over how its forces will operate, but it certainly limits Iraqi sovereignty,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University. “It’s like if U.S. troops were under NATO command on the U.S. mainland, many Americans might feel like they had lost their independence.”
Meanwhile, U.S. occupation of Iraq is set to end officially by June 30, although the U.S. government will replace some 130,000 troops there with 110,000 new forces. The United States plans to hand over leadership to Iraqis by June 1, which will be hard given the level of infighting among ethnic and religious groups as well as objections about a continued American presence. Once again, Americans will appoint the Iraqis who will lead until popular elections are held six months later. A referendum by Iraqi citizens will approve the final constitution.
Says the Economist, “America will have no official say in the permanent constitution, though it will doubtless hope that many of the liberal values written into the interim document will have become indispensable by then.”
Constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, writing in the Washington Times, isn’t buying it:
Democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and equality have been alien to the people of Iraq for more than 4,000 years. They sport none of the cultural underpinnings of nationhood, self-government or the rule of law.
Iraq has never featured anything comparable to the Declaration of Independence, E Pluribus Unum, the “Star Spangled Banner” or George Washington.
In the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis were unaware of how the 22-page constitution’s bill of rights might affect them, reports the Washington Post, although everyone interviewed by the Post‘s reporter wanted a rule guaranteeing women one in every four legislative seats.
Agreeing on the ethnic and religious makeup of the legislature won’t be so easy. Al-Sistani’s dissent demonstrated the challenge of setting up checks and balances and power sharing among rival political groups while still creating a workable governing system. His objection came as Shiites rejected the draft partly on the grounds that it allowed vetos by minority Kurds, who comprise 20 percent of the country’s population.
The Economist spells out the challenge ahead:
It is one thing to draft a document with a planned lifespan of a year or two; forging a constitution for all time, and having it approved by voters, will be quite another. All of today’s difficult issues, such as Kurdish autonomy and the role of Islam, will resurface. So too will the balance between proportionate representation in government (as advocated by the Shias) and equal representation for all ethnic groups (as pushed by the Sunnis and Kurds).
Michael Howard of London’s Guardian reports that the Kurds were pleased with the outcome. Massoud Barzani, a Kurd on the governing council, said:
“Nobody got everything they wanted, but there is no doubt that this document will strengthen Iraqi unity in a way never seen. This is the first time that we Kurds feel that we are citizens of Iraq.”
The Shiite newspaper Al Ada explained the hesitation over approving the blueprint but insisted it backed the spirit of compromise:
We also wanted to make sure everyone was involved in the discussion, because many people were not aware of the interim constitution’s details until the last minute, and they had certain comments. These people, and the factions they represent, must be aware of the law’s details and be satisfied with it. This is different from the picture given by the media outlets: there was no strident opposition and no difficult crisis.
There is, however, a wide spectrum of beliefs. We must acknowledge that some are not completely satisfied with the interim constitution, especially those outside the Governing Council. But the atmosphere is positive and serious, and all sides are taking steps to find the mechanisms and methods most suitable for solving the remaining problems.
Al Ada also pointed out the challenges of moving away from Baathist rule:
Under Saddam Hussein, the ruler became the only person who had the right to speak his piece; everybody else lost his ability to influence political decisions.
Now the government’s decisions must be taken collectively. Besides, the mechanisms governing how decisions will be made are still being formed. The laws governing elections, parties, and governmental administration are not enough to determine a country’s final point of view when the mechanisms of decision-making are being formed. The centers of power are still coalescing, the means of their interaction are still being laid out. So we must refer to these centers of power. If we don’t, the authorities will practice a kind of tyranny against the other members of society.
The Lebanese paper Al-Safir expressed mistrust of U.S. motives. “The interim constitution is full of legal gaps. It safeguards the interest of the US occupation more than it does the rightful aspirations of Iraqis.”
Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet held that the interim solution is a mere compromise to avoid such perceptions:
“Thus, the American administration, which could not take a very permanent step in Iraq, has taken one more temporary step! The agreement on the temporary constitution is temporary too. The main reason why an agreement has been reached is that basic issues have been left unclear.”