Many Scenarios in Iraq Constitution Scramble As Iraq prepares to vote next weekend on a proposed constitution, many questions remain. Phebe Marr, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace, discusses the upcoming referendum with Debbie Elliott.

Many Scenarios in Iraq Constitution Scramble

Many Scenarios in Iraq Constitution Scramble

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

As Iraq prepares to vote next weekend on a proposed constitution, many questions remain. Phebe Marr, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace, discusses the upcoming referendum with Debbie Elliott.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In Iraq today, government officials encouraged people to vote in next Saturday's referendum on a new constitution, that as violence escalates leading up to the vote. Insurgents stepped up attacks in an effort to keep people away from the polls. The constitution has support from the Shiite Muslim majority and Iraqi Kurds, but the minority Sunnis oppose the document, fearing it will splinter the country and leave them powerless. To talk about prospects for the constitution, we've invited in an expert who's often helped to sort out events in Iraq, Phebe Marr. She's a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace.


Ms. PHEBE MARR (Senior Fellow, US Institute of Peace): Delighted to be here.

ELLIOTT: In an address on terrorism last week, President Bush said the country had made incredible political progress by writing a constitution. Do you think that this can bring the country together, this process of coming up with a constitution?

Ms. MARR: It depends on how it's done. Many people feel that the process of the constitution may have polarized Iraq a bit. What we see developing in Iraq is not only polarization, but what I'm calling `cultural identity politics,' identification with an ethnic and sectarian background. Sunnis have generally not thought that way. They tend to identify more as Iraqis or Arab nationalists rather than as Sunnis. But the development of this ethnic and sectarian politics is now forcing Sunnis to think like Sunnis. And unless we can damp this down, get Iraqis together so that they're thinking like Iraqis with common interests and a central government and a direction, this doesn't bode very well for the future.

ELLIOTT: Do the Sunnis have enough `no' votes to reject this document?

Ms. MARR: That is the $64,000 question, and let me explain how it must work. If a majority of all Iraqis vote no on the constitution, it doesn't pass. But as I've explained, that's not likely because the Kurds and the Shia together constitute roughly 80 percent of the population. Now the previous constitution, the TAL, the temporary administrative law under which this election is proceeding, says that if two-thirds of any three provinces in Iraq vote no, then it doesn't come into effect.

So the issue is: Are there three provinces in which the Sunnis can garner a two-thirds vote to vote no? And most people think that's not likely. Most likely is that the constitution passes; the Sunnis, when they vote, vote no, so that the constitution gets through, but not with an overwhelming positive vote.

ELLIOTT: So what's the best-case scenario if the constitution passes?

Ms. MARR: The constitution that we have in front of us now is an imperfect document. It was very difficult for people to agree on some critical issues. The first of those issues is federalism. The Kurds have a very strong federal sort of state in the north and provisions to keep that, and the constitution says that other provinces and governorates in Iraq could form two or three governorates together to constitute a region like the Kurds. So--but this issue is very hotly contested.

Second, the constitution provides for a very weak central government. For example, the constitution says nothing about the taxation power. Both the Kurds and the Shia are afraid of a strong central government, and there is a possibility that the nine Shia provinces in the south might form a region like the Kurds. Now when the Sunnis hear this, it looks like splitting up Iraq and so on.

In any event, there are holes in the constitution which have to be filled in, and the most interesting and challenging and perhaps hopeful thing is that the election which is held in December will produce a new parliament under this constitution. That new parliament will be charged with passing something between 50 and 60 pieces of legislation to fill in the holes in this constitution.

And that new election is going to be conducted under a different election law than the last one, and I think it's very important to understand what the difference is going to be. The election law in January was proportional representation; everyone had to run on a countrywide list. That gave advantage to people who were well-organized, and the upshot of it was that it helped created these ethnic and sectarian blocs. Kurds voted for Kurds; Shia voted for Shia. This was considered negative in Iraq, and so the new election law modifies that to put much more emphasis on the local district, the local province. So every list has to run in a province, and every province will have seats in the new assembly.

Now result of that is going to be no matter what happens in the election that the Sunnis in the Sunni provincnes will have representatives in the assembly, and it may provide more fluid, more representative leadership. The Shia alliance may break down so that you might have a more flexible group in the parliament which emerges in January, which can then, in a sense, not change the constitution, but move it in a direction in which you can get more compromise and more consensus on these issues. That's the most hopeful scenario.

ELLIOTT: Phebe Marr is the author of "The Modern History of Iraq."

Thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. MARR: You're very welcome.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.