Iraqi Factions Negotiate Over Constitution

The extended deadline for submitting a new Iraqi constitution is only hours away and the issues that deadlocked it a week ago appear to be unresolved.

Iraqi Factions Negotiate Over Constitution (AP)

With a midnight deadline only hours away, Iraq’s political leaders met Monday in search of a compromise over a new constitution, but negotiators said major differences remained over the role of Islam and women’s rights. A Shiite negotiator said the only hope for a deal was through U.S. pressure. Other issues holding up agreement were believed to include federalism, the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, power sharing questions among the provinces and the role of the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

The initial Aug. 15 deadline was pushed back a week after no agreement was reached. Iraqi officials have insisted they would meet this second deadline and present a final document to the National Assembly, which is dominated by Shiites and Kurds. Negotiators for all three communities — Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs — met in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for a new round of talks Monday. Shiite politician Khaled al-Attiyah said the political leaders “have tentatively agreed that the National Assembly would meet” Monday evening.

Parliament will either receive the draft of the new charter or vote on setting a new deadline. If it doesn’t agree on either, the legislature will have to dissolve. But three hours after Monday’s negotiations started, the atmosphere did not seem favorable for compromise.

A Kurdish member of the drafting committee, Abdul-Khaleq Zangana, said there were problems with “the role of religion and women’s rights.” He would not elaborate but predicted “either an extension — and this is not good — or parliament dissolves — and this is difficult.”

Shiite lawmaker Bahaa al-Araji accused the Kurds and secular allies of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of trying to “curb the political process” to bring down the government and force new elections. “If an agreement is not reached, we will hand a draft and win slight majority in a vote and this is our right,” al-Araji said. Another Shiite lawmaker, Mohammed Baqir al-Bahadli, also spoke of differences over the role of Islam, including Kurdish demands that laws be considered constitutional only if they agree with the interpretations of all Islamic sects.

Shiites want the right to apply their own interpretation to fellow Shiites. “There is a tendency to postpone for a week or a month, and this is not in the interest of the (Shiite) alliance,” al-Bahadli said. “But we can reach a solution today if the Americans put pressure.”

Such talk of differences between the Shiites and Kurds were significant. Sunni Arab negotiators had complained of being sidelined in the final week of talks and that Shiites and Kurds were cutting deals excluding them. But if the Shiites and Kurds are citing major differences between them, then prospects for a breakthrough would appear even bleaker.

Indeed, judging only from the reporting, it appears they were closer a week ago. Interestingly, the NYT actually presents a somewhat more optimistic picture.

Leaders in Iraq Report Progress on Constitution [RSS]

Iraqi leaders moved to the brink of agreement on a new constitution on Sunday, solving several contentious issues but still struggling with the potentially explosive questions of Shiite autonomy and the role of Islam in family disputes and the judiciary. The Iraqis said they were hoping to finish the constitution by the end of the day on Monday, a deadline that they have already extended once. They scheduled a meeting of the National Assembly for Monday evening, when they hoped to present a finished constitution for approval.

Negotiators said they had agreed on a formula to share Iraq’s oil wealth, which had been one of the most difficult issues. The agreement was being shepherded with the help of American officials, and especially the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. After more than 12 hours of talks on Sunday, an American official said a deal was almost in hand. “It looks like all the major issues are resolved, and we hope tomorrow we will work out the remaining details,” said the American official, who, because of the diplomatic delicacy, spoke on condition of anonymity. But a number of important obstacles remained, and Iraqi leaders, including Laith Kubba, an aide to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, raised the possibility that they would have to extend the deadline once again.

The most sensitive of unresolved issues revolved around the role of Islam, which the constitution writers have designated as “a main source of legislation” in the new constitution. Two critical questions have not yet been resolved: whether to allow clerics to sit on the Supreme Court, and how much authority clerics will have in resolving family disputes like divorce and inheritance. Maintaining secular authority over family matters is especially important to secular Iraqi women, who fear that Islamic judges will take away the rights they now enjoy under Iraqi law.

A potentially more intractable problem in the long run was the disaffection of Sunni leaders, who have been largely excluded from the deliberations during the past week. The constitution has been written almost entirely by Shiite and Kurdish leaders, who said they had decided to leave the Sunnis out because they were being too inflexible. The support of the Sunni leaders is not necessary to complete the constitution. Because the Sunni community largely boycotted the election in January, it has only a handful of legislators in the 275-member National Assembly, which has authority to approve the document. On Sunday, Sunni leaders complained of being locked out of the drafting process. They demanded that they be included and, if they were not, that the constitution be defeated. “There is still no active and serious coordination so far,” 15 Sunni leaders said in a joint statement. “This constitution needs to be written by consensus, not simply a majority vote.”

After boycotting the elections, the Sunnis have little room to complain here. Short of new elections–and a decision by the Sunnis to actually participate–resolving the relative imbalance is difficult.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.