Scenarios for a Post-Referendum Iraq

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With nine days to go before Iraqis vote on a proposed constitution, U.S. and Iraqi scholars are exploring the possible outcomes of the referendum, and the implications for U.S. policy. The possibilities they describe include scenarios that could bring Iraq's Sunni Muslims solidly into the political process, or spin the country into civil war.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

When President Bush delivered a speech to the nation yesterday, he pointed to the struggle over Iraq's constitution as a sign that democracy is taking hold in that country. US and Iraqi scholars who are following the debate say the outcome could play out in very different ways, either drawing Iraq's Sunni Muslims into the political process or spinning the country into full-out civil war. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Many US-based analysts see the constitution as a deeply flawed document, full of vague language and unanswered questions.

Professor KANAN MAKIYA (Brandeis University): The document that we have now, in my view, is a patently unworkable document, and to the extend that it be made to work, it will work in the direction of fratricide and increasing ethnic and sectarian tensions.

FLINTOFF: Kanan Makiya is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University. He says the constitutional debate should have been drawn out to allow Iraqis to get used to the process and discuss the issues.

Prof. MAKIYA: This, of course, ran counter to the policy of the Bush administration, and it was counter to some of the interests of some of the Iraqi political groups.

FLINTOFF: For many analysts, the central issue in the constitution is the governmental structure of the country. The draft constitution calls for a federal system with substantial autonomy for the provinces. It would recognize the northern provinces, controlled by the Kurds, as a semiautonomous region, and it would allow Shiites and Sunnis to form regions from the provinces where they're dominant. It's not what Bush administration officials originally had in mind for a post-Saddam Iraqi state.

Professor BRENDAN O'LEARY (University of Pennsylvania): The constitution that's been drafted is not the one that the Bush administration sought. The Bush administration sought a highly centralized Iraq.

FLINTOFF: Brendan O'Leary is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to the Kurdish regional government. O'Leary says the US favored a centralized Iraq to assuage Turkey's worries about a strong Kurdish region on its border and to assure Sunni governments in Jordan and Saudi Arabia that Iraqi Sunnis would not be marginalized. US officials also feared that decentralizing Iraq would only be a prelude to a complete disintegration. But a strong central government had little appeal for Iraq's Shiites and Kurds, who were harshly repressed under the strong central government of Saddam Hussein. Qubad Talabani from the regional government of Kurdistan says the instability that followed Saddam's overthrow further eroded people's identity as Iraqis.

Mr. QUBAD TALABANI (Regional Government of Kurdistan): What has pushed people closer to thinking of themselves as a Kurd first or as a Shiite first or as a Sunni first is the lack of political security, economic development, just the general security situation as a whole. People will seek refuge in what protects them and what feeds them ultimately.

FLINTOFF: Many Sunnis opposed the federal plan because they saw it as a model that would isolate them in a region that doesn't have the oil resources that the Kurds and the Shiites enjoy. Nevertheless, in his speech on terrorism, President Bush signaled that the administration has abandoned the highly centralized model.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In fact, democratic federalism is the best hope for unifying a diverse population. Because a federal constitutional system respects the rights and religious traditions of all citizens, while giving all minorities, including the Sunnis, a stake and a voice in the future of their country.

FLINTOFF: As it stands right now, Sunnis are mounting a campaign to defeat the constitution at the polls, a goal they could achieve by getting two-thirds of the voters and three provinces to vote no. Rend Rahim is Iraq's former representative in Washington. She says there's a danger that Sunnis could be further disaffected if they participate strongly in the political process but fail to achieve their goal.

Ms. REND RAHIM (Iraq's Former Representative In Washington): My fear--and I think this is what Iraqis, as well as the US administration, have to think about is what happens if you have a very large, disgruntled Sunni electorate that voted no but could not make it happen? This is worrisome.

FLINTOFF: But Kanan Makiya hopes Sunni participation could create a new Sunni leadership that can negotiate amendments to the proposed constitution or even work on a new and more viable document.

Prof. MAKIYA: That's the nature of politics. You participate, you suddenly become part of the game, and they have to enter the game.

FLINTOFF: The vote takes place on October 15th. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: The Iraqi electorate is divided over more than federalism. At npr.org, you can see how the Iraqis have or have not answered other key constitutional questions, including women's rights and the role of Islam in the government.

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