Iraq Update: Sunnis May Not Sign Constitution

Reports indicate that Iraqi Kurds and Shiites have agreed on a draft constitution in time to meet Monday's midnight deadline, but that Sunni leaders have not signed on as the 11th hour approaches. Madeleine Brand gets the latest from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy, reporting from Baghdad.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is away. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, why Democrats are divided on Iraq. But first, minutes before today's midnight deadline, the Iraqi parliament has reviewed a draft constitution, but they've concluded that there are still outstanding issues left to be resolved, and they say they'll take the next three days to do that. Dan Murphy is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad. I spoke with him earlier about the remaining issues.

BRAND: The main stumbling blocks, as we know them, are federalism, the role of Islam, especially the rights of women, and how to distribute the oil wealth in Iraq. Has there been any progress in the last week on any of those issues?

Mr. DAN MURPHY (The Christian Science Monitor): It depends on who you're talking to. You're right that those are the main stumbling blocks, but an additional main stumbling block is the Sunni Arab minority, who are very underrepresented in parliament. And, of course, Sunni Arabs are behind most of the insurgent activity here. And they don't want to sign off on a constitution. There seems as if there's been a progress between Kurds and Shiites who are sort of the dominant political forces in this process. The Sunnis don't want to sign off at all, and so as we go towards this deadline in a few hours here, the Kurds and the Shiites are talking to the press and saying, `We think we've got it all stitched up. We've got a draft we can live with,' and the Sunnis are saying, `No way. If you push this through over our heads, there's going to be more blood here. Please don't do this.' What we don't know is whether or not the Shiites and the Kurds will push ahead on that basis.

BRAND: Well, speaking of more blood and more violence, you've written that some political observers say there's a de facto civil war going on in Iraq, and that one way to address that is to put some sort of peace treaty in this constitution. Is there any move to do that?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, there is a civil war here. I don't know what anybody would call it if not that. But the problem is is that usually, you know, constitutions are written and new compacts are made about the nature of states when the wars end. It's very unusual for these sorts of things to be sorted out right now. I don't think there's any chance that this constitution--if it is, in fact, finished today or in the next week--is going to be satisfying to the warring parties here. While we do have Sunnis sitting at the table negotiating with Kurds and Shiites, it's not clear to us if any of them, or how many of them, represent the people on the Sunni Arab side who are carrying guns and fighting in the insurgency here. So even if they end up cutting deals with the Kurd and Shiite partners here, it's not clear that that's going to see other Sunni Arabs put their guns down. So we're a long way away from the sort of peace process and the peace compact that a place like Iraq would need to stabilize.

BRAND: Well, is there anything that those Sunni Arabs would want to see done with this constitution, or are they so far out of the political process it doesn't matter?

Mr. MURPHY: I mean, there's two problems for them. Number one is they're aware that they have a very, almost nihilistically violent side to their own constituency, and they're, frankly, afraid of getting killed if they sign anything away that's going to be unpopular with those people who very well may be a minority but a very powerful minority at the moment.

The other issue is is that Sunnis didn't participate in the January 30th elections. So in this process and in this interim parliament, you know, they count almost no seats at all, and they probably make up anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the population. What they would really like is to delay and delay and delay until this interim parliament collapses and new elections are held so that they could have an election, participate in that election in greater numbers and have a lot more real political influence. Of course, that would be a disaster for the United States because it would set us back to January effectively.

BRAND: So where is the US in all this? Is it quietly behind the scenes trying to pressure one side or the other to make concessions?

Mr. MURPHY: They're not so quietly behind the scenes. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was in Afghanistan before and worked on the constitution there, has been sitting--you know, he's probably spent 30 years sitting down with these people in the past couple of days. And he's in a very interesting position. On the one hand, the Bush administration, for domestic political consumption, wants a fast deal as evidence of progress, and that's why the keep emphasizing these deadlines. And the last deadline we wished last week was a sort of blow to the president.

On the other hand, I think the American Embassy here and I think the American establishment in general understands that if we do get a constitution through that alienates Sunnis further, the possible good that it could bring will be undermined, and so that argues for going slow. So he is working to push them to compromise, but in the end, it's not clear that we have a lot of levers, or he has a lot of levers, to make that happen when people are so far apart on basic issues of principle.

BRAND: So what happens if they don't meet today's deadline?

Mr. MURPHY: Again, it's looking more and more likely that something may be rammed through over Sunni objections. The Shiites are telling us that they'll try to go out with a public information campaign and say, `OK, the political leaders in this process weren't happy, but we're going to try to convince you that this is a good document, you know, the average Sunni citizen or Iraqi will accept it.' That may well happen. If it doesn't happen, they'll do what they did last week, which is vote themselves some more time, which really wouldn't be so terrible given the difficult situation Iraq is in.

BRAND: Dan Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor joining us from Baghdad. Thanks, Dan.

Mr. MURPHY: Thank you.

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