Revisiting Milestones as Iraq Constitution Nears

On the first of three reports, Linda Wertheimer talks about the critical deadline in Iraq: the completion of a constitution by Aug. 15. The administration frames the push for democracy in Iraq in terms of milestones. Some of the critical dates have been more successful than others.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The news today that 14 Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq comes as a critical deadline approaches--the creation of a constitution by August 15th. Over the next few minutes, we'll examine deadlines in Iraq's political development and what milestones lie ahead. First, we'll look back at important dates over the last year, moments that were thought at the time to be critical turning points, and whether they made a difference.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Earlier today, 15 months after deliberation of Iraq and two days ahead of schedule, the world witnessed the arrival of a free and sovereign Iraqi government.

WERTHEIMER: The transfer of sovereignty last June was one of the earliest political achievements in Iraq. President Bush marked the day by saying the Iraqi people have their country back.

Pres. BUSH: This is a day of great hope for Iraqis and a day that terrorist enemies hoped never to see.

WERTHEIMER: Six months later, President Bush praised free elections in Iraq.

Pres. BUSH: Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East.

WERTHEIMER: Administration officials emphasize that Iraq's future now depends on several important political steps between now and the end of the year. President Bush says the first is the completion of a draft constitution in the next two weeks.

Pres. BUSH: After a constitution is written, the Iraqi people will have a chance to vote on it. If approved, Iraqis will go to the polls again to elect a new government under their new permanent constitution. By taking these critical steps and meeting their deadlines, Iraqis will bind their multiethnic society together in a democracy.

Mr. NATHAN BROWN (Carnegie Endowment): We have seen some milestones. They've been overbilled and oversold, but they're not trivial.

WERTHEIMER: Nathan Brown is an expert on Mideast politics at the Carnegie Endowment.

Mr. BROWN: The first milestone was the transfer to Iraqi sovereignty. And what we have as a result of that is not a fully sovereign and independent Iraqi government, but we do have an Iraqi political leadership that now has a will. It's a little bit more independent of the Americans. So that was something. The elections at the end of January of this year were a milestone. Again, I think they were overbilled. We had actually a fairly violent election day and we had an outcome in which the Shia voted and the Kurds voted but the Arab Sunnis did not vote, saddling us with some of the problems that we're just dealing with today. Again, it's a real milestone, but it is hardly a solution to Iraq's problems.

WERTHEIMER: Nathan Brown says rushing to meet another deadline now is a mistake.

Mr. BROWN: I think that calendar becomes a surrogate for a real political process. The problem is, what we're trying to do is use what might be considered a technique of post-conflict resolution for a conflict that's still very much ongoing. In the Central and Eastern European transitions, in the South African transition, the basic elements of the transition were clear before they sat down and tried to write them in constitutional form. And what we're trying to do in Iraq is reverse that process; write the constitution first and then knit the country back together.

WERTHEIMER: The conflict's still very much ongoing; the insurgency, of course, complicates reaching any milestone in Iraq. I asked Michael Rubin how Iraqis might regard a constitution against the backdrop of a deadly insurgency. Rubin was a political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority and is now an expert on Mideast politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (American Enterprise Institute): I don't think we can tie the constitutional process and success in the constitutional political process to the insurgency. I really don't see them as linked.

WERTHEIMER: Now one of the people making that connection is the president, who talks about a stable democracy in Iraq would mean the end of the insurgency.

Mr. RUBIN: In due time, not immediately. The insurgents will conduct violence if they think they can win political gain from that. If you have a stable democracy, the only political gain comes through your accountability to constituents, not car bombs.

WERTHEIMER: The Bush administration does argue that a finished constitution plays a role in taking the air out of the insurgency. When some Iraqi officials signaled they might need an extension to resolve differences, US officials intervened. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quickly flew to Baghdad. On that flight, he said, `We don't want any delays. Now is the time to get on with it.' Iraqi officials reconsidered; the August 15th deadline stands. Michael Rubin says Iraqi politicians will pull through.

Mr. RUBIN: They need the outside pressure, and what often you have in Iraqi politics is a deadline. About 24 hours before that deadline, all the Iraqi politicians will lock themselves in a smoke-filled room and then you can pretty much figure that they'll hash out an agreement. They may kick some of the issues down the road a little bit, but it's important to remember also a constitution isn't the same as a legal code. They're not agreeing on every single law and regulation that's going to affect their lives.

WERTHEIMER: The risk is that the Iraqis meet the August 15th deadline but don't resolve key constitutional questions. Among the issues, how much territory and autonomy will go to the Kurds in the north and how much Iraqi law will be based on Islam. Nathan Brown.

Mr. BROWN: In Iraq right now, we have fundamental questions. These questions haven't been answered and what they will try and do is to try and come up with a formula that will address all these questions. And my concern is that, rather than address them, they'll finesse them.

WERTHEIMER: The United States has essentially been looking over the shoulder of the people that are drafting the constitution. How has it affected the process, do you think?

Mr. BROWN: I think the problem with the American involvement is, first, it has become extremely public in a way that some Iraqis are now beginning to complain about. And the second problem with the American involvement is that it's trying to do, in a sense, three things at the same time. It's trying to first make sure that all parties are represented at the table, and that's probably a good thing. It's also trying to make sure that there are certain things in the constitution that we would like to see; for instance, women's rights. That, again, may be a good thing, but if it's done too publicly will saddle the draft with legitimacy problems. And the third thing that we're trying to do is make sure that it's written by that August 15th deadline. And the problem is, as a timetable has elevated in importance, the other American goals are beginning to recede.

Pres. BUSH: Rebuilding a country after three decades of tyranny is hard, and rebuilding while at war is even harder. Our progress has been uneven, but progress is being made.

WERTHEIMER: President Bush spoke seven times of progress in that speech at Ft. Bragg on June 28th. Whether we're seeing progress in Iraq continues to be a matter of intense debate. Answers will play out in the next few months as more deadlines come and go. Tomorrow in this segment, we'll look at another milestone in Iraq's future: creating a judiciary. Independent judges are part of every stable society, but, in Iraq, politics are getting in the way.

This is NPR News.

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