August 23, 2005, 9:10 P.M.
Big Storm Coming:
It now appears that the Iraqi Congress has approved a Constitution. Unfortunately, the constitution does not have the support of the important Sunni Minority and it looks like the dispute is as much over the control of oil revenue as it is about religion.
Control of oil and gas revenue is critical to the future, and survival of, the new Iraqi State. Iraq’s oil is located in the Shiite dominated southern region of the country and in the Kurdish controlled regions of the north. There is not much oil in the mostly Sunni central part of the country, so questions of regional autonomy, and regional control of oil are particularly significant to the Sunni minority who already fear mistreatment from the Shiite and Kurdish factions, which they dominated for so long under Saadam. Of course Sunni participation in the drafting of the constitution was limited because the Sunni community largely boycotted the election in January. As a result, it has only a handful of legislators in the 275-member National Assembly, which has authority to approve the constitution.
According to the New York Times, the Sunnis who have been involved in the drafting process have been adamant in their opposition to granting autonomy to the Shiite-majority areas. Leaders of the Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, are pressing equally hard for the establishment of an autonomous region in southern Iraq, which would consist of 9 of Iraq's 18 provinces and would contain its richest oil fields. For obvious reasons neither side wants to give on this issue, but the Shiites have the votes to get the constitution out of the committee and on to a referendum. Because of their limited numbers in the national assembly, Sunnis have been largely on the sidelines in recent negotiations and this could surely leave them disaffected and less likely to sign on to the document. This does not bode well for the ultimate passage of the constitution, or for the withdrawal of US troops from the region.
Old wounds heal slowly, especially when they run as deep as they do in the ancient societies of the Middle East. Failure to obtain buy in of the Sunni factions will continue to destabilize the process, and will increase the very real possibility of a civil war. The current proposal for the sharing of gas and oil wealth will limit the proceeds from those industries flowing to the central government and by extension to the Sunnis. Over time, assuming a stabilization of the overall political situation (which is a big assumption), the north and south have the opportunity to realize substantial increases in wealth and power while the central regions are left living on a fixed income.
None of these questions or observations are new, but they certainly did not come into play in the decision to invade and conquer Iraq. Now, however our troops are let exposed to the fallout from these very practical problems facing the new Iraq. Of course the questions of Islamic law, religious fundamentalism and radical anti-Americanism only add fuel to the fire.
The administration has attempted to draw an analogy between the transition from the articles of confederation in this country to the current federal system, and the creation of an Iraqi Constitution. Of course the White House would have us believe that the two processes are directly analogous; this is far from the case. The more direct analogy would have been if the French had fought the British, occupied the country for 8 years, “assisted” in the drafting of our constitution during the occupation and had left its own brand of secularism in place of the religious underpinnings of our own existing society, pulling its troops out only after its contracts to remove and exploit our natural resources was in place. Our Constitution has survived and has worked because we had buy in from the major factions, and because we created it out of our own experience. Even with this extraordinary background, we still suffered a brutal and prolonged civil war, the effects of which are still felt today in many parts of the country. I’m afraid that Iraq’s history will not allow it to recover from such violent growing pains.
There is still no exit strategy for Iraq, and the pentagon is indicating that US troop levels will remain as they are for another year at least. Bombings and attacks on US troops are as bad as ever and they may even be worse and the President’s approval rating has fallen to below 40% (36% actually). The Iraqi constitutional process is far from over and the questions of autonomy and religious influence are no less significant, or less inclined to lead to civil war, than the questions of States Rights and Slavery that our own forefathers wrestled with. The more uncertain the process becomes, the less likely we are to be able to get our troops home. In fact, the president is not even talking about that. All he can say is that we are going to stay the course. Unfortunately he doesn’t know how to steer one. That puts our country in a dangerous place, with even bigger storm clouds on the horizon.