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Politics in Iraq: The Constitution and Beyond

With the draft of the final Iraqi constitution about to be put to a national referendum on October 15, 2005, the Saban Center convened a policy luncheon on September 29, 2005 with two leading experts on Iraq: Prof. Noah Feldman and Dr. Raad Alkadiri. Feldman served as Senior Constitutional Advisor to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Alkadiri, director of the Country Strategies Group at PFC Energy, worked as Policy Advisor to Britain’s Special Representatives to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and David Richmond.

Feldman commented on the substance of the Iraqi constitution, in particular the provision for federalism, as well as whether the constitution would be ratified. In his view, the language of the new constitution is vague. Some of the language in the new draft was taken from the interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL, adopted in March 2004) and was then rendered even more opaque. For example, the draft final constitution addresses the issue of whether the national or regional governments should control the oil sector with a provision that states that the federal government will administer “current” oil fields in cooperation with the regional and governorate authorities. Feldman argued that the meaning of this important clause had not been defined—what does it mean to “administer” the oil fields? In Feldman’s view, the word federalism has become a euphemism for oil. He believes Iraqi politicians have postponed resolving difficult issues through vague language, a strategy that will create further complications in the future.

With respect to the ratification of the final Iraqi constitution, Feldman suggested two possible scenarios: first, that the constitution might pass because the Sunni Arabs might not be able to secure sufficient votes (a two-thirds majority in three governorates) required to block the constitution; second, ratification might fail because the Sunni Arabs muster the necessary votes. The difference in consequence between the two scenarios relates to the upcoming December 15, 2005 parliamentary elections. If the Sunni Arabs manage to block the constitution, they will most likely participate in the subsequent legislative elections. However, if the Sunni Arabs take part in the constitutional referendum in large numbers but fail to obstruct the constitution, then they will perceive democracy in Iraq to be a “fool’s game.” In such an eventuality, the United States will need to integrate the Sunni Arabs into subsequent negotiations, because the only strategy for the United States to quell the insurgency is through a political process.

Feldman argued that the political process was becoming increasingly problematic. He observed that the Bush administration had previously been able to point to progress in the political process as a means of balancing out the deteriorating security environment. That line of argument is now more difficult to make with the political process encountering major complications.

Alkadiri made the case that there was a growing disconnect between politics inside the Green zone (now know as the “International zone”, the sealed area controlled by the Coalition in central Baghdad) and outside. The result of this widening divide is more popular discontent with the political class: “while political deals are made and the constitution is discussed, in the country itself there is hostility, instability, and polarization.” According to Alkadiri, that polarization is leading to sectarian conflict. He said that “while Saddam Hussein had sowed the seeds of sectarianism, we have been watering them, and now we have the products of this watering.”

Alkadiri identified two factors that have undermined stability in Iraq: the lack of political maturity exhibited by Iraqi politicians and absence of effective government. He claimed that nobody in Iraq envisioned a grand political strategy for the whole country. Instead, each group pursues its own narrow sectarian and ethnic interests. Alkadiri emphasized what he felt was the centrality of having a national compact and a unified vision for Iraq, which will involve national reconciliation. Such a compact has been missing in Iraq. The United States, as the middleman in Iraqi politics, has done nothing to fill that gap.

Alkadiri observed that the government of prime minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari has been ineffective, performing worse than the government of Iyad Allawi. In particular, the Ja’afari government has failed to address the main priorities for the Iraqi people: security and delivery of services. Policy omissions and government ineffectiveness have led to a country that is substantially polarized along sectarian and ethnic lines, with Shi’a Arab versus Sunni Arab confrontation at the heart of this political discord. Alkadiri noted that the security forces were becoming increasingly sectarian and that a low level civil war had started, with increasing tit for tat sectarian attacks. He concluded by emphasizing the need for fundamental compromise in Iraqi politics. There needs, he argued, to be a realization that both the supporters of the draft final constitution and its opponents have a common destiny, and that those who he said had been disenfranchised had to be integrated into the political process.

Discussion

In response to a question about which mechanisms should be used to create a political compact and common vision for Iraq, Alkadiri replied that it was necessary for the political elites to reconcile their interests. He argued that to bring the insurgents into the political process, the Iraqi government would need to ensure a payoff for the insurgents in the form of their personal security and income, as well as a guarantee of their future role in the Iraqi society. He observed that elections were crucial for integrating every group into the political process.

Asked about Iran’s role in Iraq, Alkadiri said that Iranian involvement was both overrated and underrated. He argued that Iran’s impact was overstated in the sense that whenever something goes wrong, Iran and Syria are often blamed. On the other hand, the extent of Iranian assets in Iraq has been underestimated. Iran has been continuously increasing its resources in Iraq and expanding its intelligence network, and has even established links with the former Ba’thists. Replying to the same question, Feldman said that Iran had no interest in a bloody civil war in Iraq. What Iran wanted, he argued, was a stable but weak Iraq that would fall under its general control. In addition, Iran would like to see a reduced U.S. military presence in Iraq as it was not comfortable with having 150,000 American troops next door.

Feldman said that any proposal to raise the bar for rejecting the constitution, such as by defining the votes needed to block the constitution as two-thirds of registered voters in three governorates rather than two-thirds of the votes cast in three governorates would be unusual, and unheard of in terms of international electoral practice (such a provision was, however, adopted on October 3, 2005).

Asked about the consequences if the draft final constitution were rejected, both Feldman and Alkadiri said that there would in any event have to be parliamentary elections in December 2005. If the constitution failed to pass the October 15, 2005 referendum, then the December 2005 legislative elections would set up a new Transitional National Assembly (TNA) to replace the current TNA. The process pursued during 2005 would be repeated, with the new TNA tasked with forming a transitional government, and writing new constitution. Alkadiri noted that no provision had been made in the event that the draft of a final constitution were rejected twice, an oversight that he had argued against during his time in the CPA. Both Feldman and Alkadiri argued that the insurgency contained a very wide spectrum encompassing elements such as Salafists and Saddamists whose nihilism meant that they could not be integrated into the political process. For that reason, although both stressed the importance of the political process and political inclusion, negotiations would need to be supported by military force.

In response to a question as to how U.S. policy ought to be adjusted, both speakers replied that it was important that political negotiations should continue in parallel with an improvement in the training of Iraqi security forces. However, they acknowledged that the latter was challenging because U.S. forces did not have sufficient personnel to be able to conduct military operations, and ensure force protection, while at the same time training up Iraqi forces. Both Feldman and Alkadiri agreed that victory could not be achieved through a solely security strategy. It is, they argued, imperative to continue with the political process, by investing in the rule of law and establishing inclusive democratic institutions.

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