Slate's War Stories: Iraq's Sunni Problem

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A draft Iraqi constitution appears ready to put to voters in a referendum this October. But Sunni leaders have denounced the document, and may try to block its passage. Alex Chadwick speaks with Slate military affairs writer Fred Kaplan.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Hurricane Katrina has hit the Gulf Coast. NPR News will be bringing you updates on that story. We'll have more of it on the show later.

First, this. In Iraq, a draft constitution does appear to be on the way to the country's voters for their approval. Iraqi leaders submitted the document to parliament yesterday in advance of a October referendum. That's the good news. The bad is that Sunni Arab leaders don't like this arrangement, this draft constitution that they have to look at.

Fred Kaplan writes about military affairs for the online magazine Slate, and he's been writing a lot about this constitution in the last week.

Fred, welcome back to the program. You've gone through this draft. What do you think?

FRED KAPLAN (Slate): Well, I'm not too encouraged. I mean, it seems that the differences are so great and the differences also correspond to differences within the country, social differences, cultural differences, and therefore I don't see a very peaceful way out of this at the moment.

CHADWICK: As you write about the situation with the constitution, it is the standout Sunni Islamic sect of the country that is the problem. The Sunnis don't like this constitutional draft. They have refused to agree to it. The Shia have agreed to it and the Kurds in the north have agreed to it, largely, I think, on this question of federalism that you write about.

KAPLAN: That's right. You know, the number-one reality in Iraq is that the Kurdish regions to the north and the Shiite regions to the south have oil. The Sunni-dominated regions in the center basically don't. This constitution strengthens the power of the regions. The Sunnis are afraid of being closed out of the whole deal, politically and economically. This is one of the major issues behind the insurgency. The Sunnis were not co-opted or lured to come aboard a constitution that provides some unification, and therefore whether or not the constitution is approved or rejected in the October referendum, I don't see how the insurgency ends.

CHADWICK: Let's look at a couple of provisions of this. First of all, federalism, yes. This constitution says they are going to have a federal state, and regions will be able to regionalize. Oil revenues are guaranteed to the government. What are they saying specifically about future oil revenues?

KAPLAN: Well, see, that's one of the things. It talks about how revenue from current oil and gas fields will be divided and distributed in a fair way to be determined by two-thirds of the parliament. It says nothing about new oil fields or new gas developments, of which presumably there are many.

CHADWICK: On to Islam. The role of Islam under this constitution seems to have a lot of contradictions...


CHADWICK: ...lying in wait here.

KAPLAN: Right. It says Islam is the religion of the state. It is a fundamental religion of the country. What that means exactly is unclear. The interim constitution that USA authorities drew up a year ago said that Islam was `a religion.' The Shiite clerics had pushed for it to be changed to `the religion,' and now it's `a fundamental religion.' But more than that, there is a supreme court created that basically has mainly clerics deciding the constitutionality of all federal laws before they are put into effect on the basis of how well they conform to Islamic law.

CHADWICK: There's also the question of the role of women, which those clerics may be ruling on. This is something that civil libertarians had been watching a lot, as the process goes along there in Iraq. As it happens, the constitution now guarantees 25 percent of the seats in parliament will be held for women.

KAPLAN: Right, which is what it is now, too. And it also guarantees, at least rhetorically, equal rights by gender, ethnic group and so forth. However, you know, you do still have this cleric-dominated Supreme Court passing on legislation. So there are potential schisms between rhetoric and actuality. And, in fact, one of the activists for women's rights in Iraq, a woman who prominently met with President Bush a year ago and thanking him for all that he'd done for free Iraq, now says that if the constitution passes in its present form, she would likely have to leave the country.

CHADWICK: Fred Kaplan on the new draft constitution for Iraq. The referendum to approve or disapprove the constitution comes in about a month and a half. Fred is a writer for Slate magazine.

Fred, thank you again.

KAPLAN: Thanks.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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