Parsing the Language of Iraq's Draft Constitution

While most experts expect Iraq's draft constitution to pass, there are still questions about how it defines the responsibilities of the central and regional authorities on key issues like oil and security. Steve Inskeep talks with Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.

There are two more car bombings in Iraq today, one in Baghdad and the other in the northwestern town of Talafar. At least 35 Iraqis were killed. The violence comes as are continuing last-minutes efforts to resolve differences over a draft constitution just four days before voters go to the polls in a nationwide referendum on the document. US diplomats are mediating between the Baghdad government, which is dominated by Shiite and Kurdish leaders, and representatives of Iraq's Sunni-Arab community. The Sunnis object to several elements of the draft constitution, and they are urging voters to reject the document in Saturday's referendum.

Nathan Brown writes about Arab politics and is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He spoke with Steve Inskeep about the language of Iraq's constitution.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Mr. Brown, welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHAN BROWN (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

INSKEEP: When you look at the actual language of this constitution, how definitive is it about the role of the central government?

Mr. BROWN: It's not that definitive at all. It sets up the possibility, I think, for an extremely weak central government. Most of the critical issues it leaves to be decided later on.

INSKEEP: What's an example of that?

Mr. BROWN: Perhaps oil revenues. It mentions them as belonging to all the Iraqi people, and then adds, `but in their separate provinces and regions.' It says it should be distributed equitably, but then says, `regions that have been discriminated against in the past should receive a slightly greater share for an indefinite period.' How long that period is, how much a share, all that is left for future bodies to decide.

INSKEEP: Have you put your finger here on some language that is causing some consternation, because there's the possibility of Shiites and Kurds forming these separate regions which then might latch on to that language to hang on to their oil revenues?

Mr. BROWN: I think that's exactly what people are worried about. With the Kurds, it's extremely clear. There is going to be a Kurdistan region. The Kurds are going to push any element of autonomy in this as far as it can go. There is some interest among some of the Shia population, especially in the south, of setting up their own region, and it could again take this language in the constitution and push it in as decentralizing direction as possible.

INSKEEP: There are a lot of constitutions around the world, and in the Arab world, as a matter of fact, that they say all sorts of things on paper, but in practical effect they don't mean very much. Are people convinced that the language of this constitution is really going to matter in the new Iraqi government?

Mr. BROWN: I think there was a hope that it would matter. This was supposed to be written a little bit more from the ground up. In the end, however, when I read it, it looks an awful lot more like those neighboring constitutions than I think most people would have expected at the beginning. Full of fairly vague languages, full of fairly vague promises, but fairly short on enforcement and that kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Is this the document that you think the Bush administration expected to have Iraqis voting on?

Mr. BROWN: No. I think it's a little bit of a surprise for the Bush administration. I think that most people recognize that Kurdish autonomy was something that was going to happen, but is happening in a little bit stronger form perhaps. But the real surprise is that various regions in the country can go off and really the central government has very few tools in order to stop that process. It's also probably a little bit less of a liberal and democratic constitution than the Bush administration would have wanted but, again, that's fairly vague and unclear at this point.

INSKEEP: What language is in there to reassure Sunnis?

Mr. BROWN: Very little. At the--after the constitution was drafted, what was called its final draft, we had a second final final draft in which some minor modifications were made. For instance, recognizing that Iraq was a founding member of the Arab League and recognizing the charter of the Arab League, and there's talk up to this moment of pushing that language just a little bit farther. But most of those are very symbolic concessions. When you get to the actual mechanisms of government, I don't think they got very much.

INSKEEP: Why does it matter to Sunnis whether or not Iraq was a founding member of the Arab League?

Mr. BROWN: Well, what they really want is some affirmation that Iraq is an Arab country and is going to be held together as a single unit, and for that reason I think they probably care an awful lot more about who's going to be commanding the militias than what it says about the Arab League. It was as strong a symbolic concessions as the other parties were willing to make, however.

INSKEEP: Is it possible for any document to pull these groups together if they don't trust each other?

Mr. BROWN: I think it may have been possible. We saw in late July and early August one of the Americans' biggest successes was to get everybody at the table talking to each other, and they were beginning to bend and make a few concessions. I don't know whether they would have come to an agreement, but the United States made, I think, a fatal mistake which was by pushing the deadline for writing the constitution so hard that it basically aborted that process even as it was just beginning.

INSKEEP: Mr. Brown, thanks very much.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Nathan Brown is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MONTAGNE: And complete coverage of the vote on Iraq's constitution is at npr.org.

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