Patrick Cockburn: The American obsession with a quick constitution is a recipe for disaster in Iraq

The friction between Shia, Sunni and Kurd is likely to be exacerbated rather than muted

Share

The determination of American diplomats in Baghdad over the past few days to force a draft constitution through the Iraqi national assembly at high speed is not aimed at producing a political success to coincide with the birthday of President George Bush. But it has everything to do with the desperate need of the White House, as popular support for the war in Iraq ebbs by the day across the US, to show that it is making progress. It is not Iraqi but American political priorities which are paramount.

This is turning out to be a recipe for disaster. The draft constitution submitted at the last minute on Monday night would turn Iraq into a loose federation while the basis for laws would be strongly Islamic. "There will be no central government like before," declared Humam Hamoudi, the Shia chairman of the parliamentary committee drawing up the constitution.

The constitution is the fruit of co-operation between the Kurds and Shias who dominate the national assembly. The views of the Sunni members of the constitutional committee, mostly co-opted because few Sunnis took part in the general election in January, were largely ignored.

But it is the five million-strong Sunni Arab community in Iraq which is the base of the insurgency in which almost 2,000 American soldiers have been killed over the past two years. "If this constitution passes, the streets will rise up," said Salih Mutlak, a Sunni delegate.

Ironically it was the US and Britain who had previously pressed the claims for Sunni representation on the drafting committee, much to the irritation of Kurdish and Shia leaders. But after the first deadline for a draft constitution was missed on 15 August the Sunni leaders were excluded and their views ignored. Such was the pressure from the US to produce a constitution that US embassy staff were reportedly working late into the night from a Kurdish party headquarters to translate changes in the draft from English to Arabic.

Many Iraqis will be offended by the role of the US in producing a constitution for a supposedly independent country. It mirrors too closely covert control of Iraq by Britain between 1920 and 1958. Aside from Kurdistan, where there are in any case almost no foreign troops, Sunni and Shia Iraqis alike tend to blame everything wrong in their lives on the foreign occupation.

The whoops of appreciation from Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, at what has been achieved will also be greeted with scepticism in Baghdad. Every few months since the overthrow of Saddam supposed turning points have been reached in the struggle for Iraq. First came the capture of the former leader himself in December 2003. Six months later sovereignty was transferred by the US and Britain in a furtive ceremony to an interim Iraqi government. Last January, Iraqis went to the polls and, after months of acrid negotiations, a government was finally formed.

At each of these "decisive" stages, much lauded at the time and then swiftly forgotten by the outside world, Iraqis have been told that their lives were going to get better. Instead they have become worse. For all the billions reputedly spent on reconstruction not a single crane can be seen on the Baghdad skyline. As the city bakes in summer heat electricity works for only a few hours each day to pump water or run the air-conditioning.

To hear Mr Bush and other American leaders speak, they might be supporting the creation of a constitution for a country as placid as Denmark - and not a land torn apart by war as is Iraq. This is hardly a moment for Iraqis to be interested in constitutional rules to govern their lives, when just staying alive presents such problems.

American officials had been saying that the two main blocs - the Kurds and the Shias - would force moderation on each other during negotiations on the new constitution. The Shias would compel the Kurds to limit their separatism and the secular Kurds would prevent the Shias enshrining Islam in the laws.

In practice, Shias and Kurds have each allowed the other to get what they want. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most successful Shia party in the January election, is also pushing for autonomy for the nine southern Shia provinces beneath which lie most of Iraq's oil reserves. Existing oilfields would be controlled by the central government; newly discovered fields would be exploited by the provincial authorities.

The friction between Shia, Sunni and Kurd is likely to be exacerbated rather than muted by these new arrangements. Shia leaders say that if the Sunnis object so much to the constitution then they can torpedo it if three Sunni-dominated provinces vote against it by a two-thirds majority in the referendum on 15 October. But, going by what has happened in Iraq over the past two years, the insurgents are more likely to express their dislike of the draft constitution with bomb and bullet, rather than decorously trooping to the polling stations to oppose it.

The problem about the draft constitution is that it does too little and too much. It does too little in terms of prolonged negotiations to conciliate the Sunni Arabs. It does too much in terms of institutionalising federalism and Islamic law and mores.

The successful creation of a constitution, an agreement on the rules which are to regulate the Iraqi state and society, suppose a stability which Iraq does not enjoy. The strength of the different communities will change over the next year. The Kurds and the Shias have an overwhelming majority in the national assembly because the Sunnis boycotted the last elections. This may not be true in future.

The US obsession with meeting deadlines for elections and a constitution also heralds another seismic change in who holds power. Washington is eager to declare a famous victory and reduce its troop numbers. The political cost at home is growing. It is not that the insurgents are going to storm Baghdad, but the administration is paying the price of having lied about the real situation on every occasion since it first decided to go to war in 2002. It is having difficulty sustaining the present level of casualties and would be in worse trouble if they suddenly escalated. That well might happen.

No country finds it easy to produce a constitution. To do so in such haste during a foreign occupation and a savage guerrilla war is surely impossible. To attempt to do so is likely to produce conflict rather than reduce it. The patched-together draft being considered with such unnecessary haste this week is less likely to create a framework through which Iraqis can live in peace than to provide the ingredients for a long and bloody war.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate