Constitutional Deadline Arrives in Baghdad

An Iraqi committee made up of Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds wants an extension to deliver a reform draft of Iraq's constitution. The deadline was today. What's the status of the document? Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, talks about a key benchmark.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now when U.S. officials talk about getting Iraq's government to meet certain benchmarks or goals, they're talking about many of the same measures that Jamie just described that the parliament is not passing. Today, as it happens, is the formal deadline for one of them. By today Iraqis were supposed to agree on changes to their constitution.

Vali Nasr is tracking that effort. He's a member of the Council On Foreign Relations and is the author of the book "The Shia Revival." Welcome back to the program.

Mr. VALI NASR (Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.

INSKEEP: What's the importance of that change to the constitution and what is it?

Mr. NASR: Well, the change to the constitution was initially promised to the Sunnis as a price for their participation in elections, and it was believed from the very early on to be absolutely necessary for keeping Iraq together and coming up with the formula that would make this country work.

INSKEEP: This is giving Sunni Muslims who lost a lot of power with the fall of Saddam Hussein some larger voice in government?

Mr. NASR: That's correct. They initially boycotted participation in the political process in Iraq because of that loss of power. And these revisions to the constitution is meant to give them back some of those powers.

INSKEEP: Well, I have to note that although today was the deadline, we've already heard - actually yesterday - from Iraq's parliament that a committee set to study amendments to the constitution failed to agree on a number of issues and wants an extension.

Mr. NASR: Well, it was to be expected. There does not exist in Iraq a framework for negotiations towards some kind of agreement. And the chaos in the parliament is not the reason why there is an agreement. It's actually a reflection of the absence of that agreement.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, this is just one benchmark, and there are many others that people in Congress have been talking about. And President Bush said last week that he thinks the idea of benchmarks is a good one. In addition to changing the constitution, there's eliminating militia powers, stopping political interference in security forces, providing security in Baghdad, reducing the level of sectarian violence, passing an oil law - on and on, different pieces of legislation. How much of these demands by Americans are actually practical?

Mr. NASR: These are not practical demands. There are goals to be achieved if there is to be a political solution for Iraq. What we have in Iraq is the United States making unilateral demands for concessions from the Iraqi government and from its Kurdish participants, but there is no Sunni leadership with which either the Kurds or the Shiites could credibly be negotiating. And there is no framework. There's no meetings. There is no peace process between them that you would say they would be actually sitting down and talking about these points.

INSKEEP: Why do you think U.S. officials from both parties, from time to time, focus so much on meeting these goals when the conditions don't seem to be there to meet them?

Mr. NASR: Well, partly that the United States is looking for a way to extricate itself from Iraq, and also to put pressure on the Iraqi government to achieve desired goals without actually helping the Iraqi government with a negotiations process, with a regional engagement that would facilitate this. In many ways the benchmarks are meant to solve political issues domestically for U.S. policymakers.

INSKEEP: How do demands for benchmarks solve domestic political problems for Americans?

Mr. NASR: Because it passes the responsibility for solving Iraq's problems solely to the Iraqi government and to Iraqi politicians. But it does not really put forward regional framework around which they actually could negotiate. It might be even more useful if the U.S. policymakers will put benchmarks on the State Department in order to take concrete steps in the direction of bringing the two sides of the table, of creating a negotiation and a peace framework for Iraq.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is author of "The Shia Revival." Thanks very much.

Mr. NASR: Thank you.

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