BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqis are facing another pivotal moment in their dance with democracy when they go to the polls on Saturday, Oct. 15, to approve or reject a constitution that was drafted in hurried, acrimonious negotiations over the summer.
Most people—even Sunni Muslims opposed to it—now expect the constitution to pass.
But there's no such consensus on whether the constitution will relieve or aggravate the religious, ethnic and other divides in Iraqi society, which have deepened since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
Supporters of the constitution say its passage would be a major stride toward the Bush administration's goal of making Iraq a democratic model for the Arab world.
But the rancorous drafting process and the flaws in the document, combined with the mounting violence in Iraq, could further alienate the country's Sunni Muslim minority, fuel the insurgency and create another milepost on Iraq's path toward disintegration.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq's vice president, is among the optimists. "The peaceful means (for achieving political goals) is gaining ground," Mahdi said. "The constitution is a tool to implement order. It's a consensus. It's a contract."
Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, largely in the south, and the Kurdish minority in the north are expected to vote solidly for the constitution, which provides a great deal of local autonomy following the brutal central control of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
Many Sunnis oppose stripping power from the central government and handing it to largely autonomous Kurdish and Shiite states. But even though the Iraqi parliament has reversed a last-minute rule change that would have ensured passage, the Sunnis have little chance of defeating the constitution. Two-thirds of voters in three of the nation's 18 provinces must reject the proposed document for the constitution to fail.
Both Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim, and many Sunnis believe that moderate Sunni politicians erred in January when they boycotted elections to the National Assembly. With almost no Sunni Arab representation, a coalition of Shiites and Sunni Muslim Kurds has ruled the country and dictated the constitution-writing process.
Sunnis were invited to help draft the constitution, but with lawmakers under U.S. pressure for a quick deal and many articles already ironed out between the Shiites and the Kurds, they were largely ignored, said Ayad al-Samaraee, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party.
"We were concentrating on the main issues," he said, including a stronger role for the central government and safeguards to keep the country united. "They are willing to cooperate only on the minor issues."
The result is a constitution that Sunnis fear could cut them off from Iraq's oil wealth, which is largely in Shiite and Kurdish areas. They bristle at suggestions that the document will unite the country. It's too weak to do that, they say.
If the constitution passes, "it will be a weak Iraq," al-Samaraee said.
Despite his disappointment, al-Samaraee is looking beyond the referendum to national elections in December, in hopes of electing Sunnis to the National Assembly so they can't be ignored again.
In fact, the vagueness of many provisions of the constitution, which some consider a flaw, means that Sunnis could address their concerns through legislation.
"This is basically a fill-in-the-blanks constitution," said Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who's studied the proposed constitution. "Much is being left for interpretation."
Feldman believes that the Bush administration's push for an early referendum might pay off because Sunnis are now trying to engage in the political process. The hope is that Sunni participation reaches a critical mass that will gradually sap Sunni support for Iraq's insurgency.
So far, however, there's little sign that that's taken place.
Iraq's insurgency seems to have gained at every promised turning point, from the capture of Saddam in December 2003, to the formal transfer of sovereignty at the end of June 2004, to the national assembly elections in January of this year.
Some 300 Iraqis—mainly Shiites—have been killed in a series of bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in the last several days. Attacks have moved far beyond assaults on security personnel to the killings of teachers, shoppers, laborers and children. Many Shiites have fled their homes in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad after threats to or murders of relatives. Sunnis have fled some predominantly Shiite areas.
On the street, many Sunnis say they consider the constitution irrelevant.
"You will have people who will vote yes and others who will vote no," said Khalid al-Singery, the Sunni mayor of the northeast city of Diyala. "But really, they don't care. They just care about getting food to their families and surviving."
"I don't care if this constitution passes or not because I am not benefiting from anything in it," said Farouq Dawood, 42, a Sunni taxi company owner in Baghdad. "There are people who wrote this for their benefit."
The International Crisis Group, a worldwide independent conflict-resolution organization, warned in a recent report that the constitution's grant of autonomy to local authorities could exacerbate the conflict.
"While the principle of decentralization was enshrined, not all its details were ironed out, and both vagueness and ambiguity are seeds of potential future discord," the report said.
The report argues that regional governments are likely to use the ambiguities to take matters into their own hands, asserting control over taxation and natural resources and confining Sunnis to the resource-poor central area of the nation.
"Sunni Arabs will be the obvious losers if the present document is adopted," the report concluded.
If Sunnis feel that their votes don't matter, said al-Samaraee, the insurgents could take advantage of that and tell people that violence is more powerful than voting.
"They will say it is useless to take part in the political process," he said.
There's nothing in the proposed constitution that prevents Iraq's major ethnic groups—Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds—from settling their differences. In fact, negotiations are continuing over many points.
But making the document work, holding Iraq together and undermining the insurgency will require each group to compromise on something it values to accommodate the others.
That has yet to happen.
For the International Crisis Group report see: www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=3701&l=1
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.