Building Consensus on Iraq's Constitution As the deadline approaches for the framing a new Iraq constitution, Neal Conan and guests look at the issues still at play.
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Building Consensus on Iraq's Constitution

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Building Consensus on Iraq's Constitution

Building Consensus on Iraq's Constitution

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. After a successful launch this morning, NASA is now examining video of space shuttle Discovery's liftoff. They want to make sure no damage was done to the shuttle. That's what happened in 2003, when falling foam damaged the wing of the space shuttle Columbia, which led to disaster on re-entry.

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Tomorrow, on TALK OF THE NATION, Congress is close to agreement on the energy bill, but experts contend that the massive bill does not do much to halt the nation's dependence on foreign oil. We'll look at what we would need to do to become self-sufficient in energy and at the price. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

There are only three weeks to go until Iraq's constitutional committee is required to put a draft of the new constitution in front of the National Assembly. So far the process has been choked with problems. Sunnis only rejoined the committee on Monday after withdrawing after the assassination of two of their members last week. And there are reports that the group is struggling with Kurdish demands for a larger autonomous zone. Nathan Brown, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and an expert on constitutions, joins us now to tell us about the latest developments. He's with us at the studios of The Brookings Institution here in Washington.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor NATHAN BROWN (George Washington University; Carnegie Endowment for Peace): Thank you very much.

CONAN: There are reports today that a draft section of the constitution outlines the role for Islam in civil society. Can you tell us more about that?

Prof. BROWN: Well, the problem is that there are several texts that are floating around, all of which bear a strong family resemblance to each other, but it's not quite clear which is the latest or which is the most authoritative.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BROWN: In all of the drafts there's a very strong symbolic role for Islam. Where the drafters are really beginning to be pressed, I think, is in translating that general commitment to Islam to specifics. How is this going to be implemented in Iraqi society? And that's where there are very strong arguments among the different orientations in Iraq, over women's rights and so forth and so on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Women's rights not just in criminal law, but in civil law, divorces, that sort of thing.

Prof. BROWN: Yes. In almost all Middle Eastern states, there's a separate category of law called personal status of law that governs marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on. And in a sense, this area of law is probably far more important for people's daily lives than constitutional law. And most constitutions in the region just leave the matter out or say, `We'll cover this in regular legislation.' But what the Iraqi drafters are trying to do is to write in a measure of Islamic law back into the document. Now the pre-existing system in Iraq is based on Islamic law, but it's a fairly--a secular interpretation of that law and it's also one that pushes women's rights about as far as it can. And so the women's groups are concerned that that's going to be rolled back in the final draft of the constitution.

CONAN: Well, a little bit later, we'll be speaking with Zakia Hakki, who's a member of the National Assembly, a woman, a Kurd and a Shia; a minority in three respects, but we'll be talking with her a little bit later about her views on this.

Now I know you've been translating drafts of the constitution or drafts of leaks of the constitution, various versions are coming out, sounds like democracy is breaking out, but how has the draft been changing?

Prof. BROWN: Well, it's been changing in a few respects. First, they had a--the Sunni--excuse me, the Shiite religious parties, that are really the dominant presence in the assembly, and the Kurdish parties, seem to have come to a fundamental agreement and they were putting a lot of meat on those bones. So it's been changing in terms of getting more specific, better drafted and that sort of thing.

But the other big development is the introduction of the Sunni representatives into the committee. It took a long time to add them because they're not represented in the National Assembly. It took a long time to coax all the parties to welcome them and then to coax them into the committee. And then, of course, with the assassinations last week, they boycotted and have now come back again. Their presence has sort of disrupted a little bit that Shia-Kurdish bargain and has set a few of the subtle questions--sent them back to the drawing board on a few of those questions they thought had been settled.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, is one of those questions the issue of--well, it's generally referred to as federalism. The Kurds are the biggest on this because they have had their own autonomous region in the north of Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War back in 1991. They want to expand that territory pretty substantially, and as I've read their statements, it seems to me they're saying, `This is our bottom line. We'll compromise on anything else, but not this.'

Prof. BROWN: Well, that's the Kurdish advantage going into these negotiations. They have one thing that they want, they're willing to give away almost anything else and they've got also a fairly well-drafted program. So that makes them fairly tough negotiating partners.

At the same time, the new Sunni representatives are starting from a position of saying, `Look, Iraq's always been a unitary state, and we don't want to go so far in the direction of decentralization and federalism that we wind up partitioning the country.' And the kinds of federalism that people are talking about in Iraq, to these Sunni representatives, is sometimes nothing more than a code word for `partition.'

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. This is Al. Al calling from Eden Prairie in Minnesota.

AL (Caller): Good afternoon. I have just a quick one; I've been watching this for a while. What do you think the chances of this succeeding are considering the fact that it--I believe it's the Sunnis in the minority now?--are...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

AL: ...basically, in their minds, fairly underrepresented and, you know, don't have a whole lot of say, compared to what they had under Saddam, of how things are going, and that seems to be where most of the strife is coming from. What do you think the odds are that they're going to actually accept whatever comes out of this as being legitimate and something that they're actually going to follow?

Prof. BROWN: That's a very good question and, in a sense, it's the most difficult question to answer because, in a sense, what the Iraqis are doing is drawing things backwards. In most countries, what happens is you have some kind of fundamental political consensus or some kind of transition, the basic outlines of political reconciliation are clear and then you go ahead and write the constitution. For instance, in South Africa, there was an agreement on principles among all the major parties, then an interim constitution, then a final constitution.

The Iraqis are, in a sense, trying to write a constitution while there is a very violent insurgency going on in the country, and while it's clear that they don't have that fundamental agreement between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shia, and that's a very difficult proposition. So I would guess they will get a constitution written. I would be optimistic about it getting adopted, although that's not certain. But it doesn't seem to be all that likely that it's going to be the solution for Iraq's political crisis.

AL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Al, thanks for the call.

Well, in even more immediate terms, do you think, Nathan Brown, that they're likely to get a draft ready by the initial deadline of August 15th?

Prof. BROWN: Well, we'll know awfully quickly, I guess. The deadline for the constitution drafting committee is actually even sooner than that, because they have set a deadline for themselves of August 1st--this is the drafting committee--that will then forward whatever work they've done to the National Assembly, giving the National Assembly two weeks to debate and make whatever amendments they want to in the final process. That's an extremely rushed way to draft a constitution. It really is a process that only began at the beginning of June. It doesn't have an awful lot of public involvement or (unintelligible) at least up till now, so I think that they'll do it. I think they've generated an awful lot of text and they keep on changing, crossing out and adding and so on. So I think they will get a text forwarded to the National Assembly and the National Assembly will approve it. But the question is: Who does this represent, and is this simply the product of fairly intense bargaining among the elites? It doesn't really have buy-in from the society.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And really, is that a question for more than just the Sunnis?

Prof. BROWN: Oh, very definitely. The Sunnis are the ones who are feeling most politically excluded at the moment and, in a sense, they are because so few of them voted in the elections. But what we're witnessing, in a sense, even in the drafting committee is a committee--first of 55, now expanded to about 70 members--that's settling most of the issues among themselves. They are making some effort to reach out the population and to consult with their constituencies, but the process is going so very quickly that there's not really much of an opportunity to generate public debate.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is And I do have to apologize that--we've been trying to reach Zakia Hakki. The telephone lines are just not useable this evening to--I don't know why it's not working, but it's not working. But we'll try to get her back on another program at a later time, but we apologize for that.

Anyway, let's get another caller on the line. This is Lukemond(ph)--Am I pronouncing that correctly?--in Boston.

LUKEMOND (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.

LUKEMOND: Well, it is good to have everything going in a democracy process. Unfortunately, that's not the case in Iraq with the mentality of the people. The Kurds are living with the Arabs there. This constitution doesn't work. I mean, if you go back to the constitution before, they were good constitution and they didn't work because the people there cannot live together. You have (unintelligible) the Kurds whose land has been forcefully annexed to so-called Iraq and they have been treated very badly, they're cruel, so many genocides and ...(unintelligible), all of this. And the distrust between those people cannot make them live together. That's one point.

The second point, even with this new government, you have the TAL, Transitional Administration Law, the Chapter 58 in that law. The Shia and the Red Soldier Arab doesn't want to ...(unintelligible). So--well, what guarantees you that--this new constitution will be respected? I mean, no matter what, the majority of the Iraq, backed up by the regional countries, will make Iraq feel as it felt in the last 80, 85 years. So the only solution is to have those people have independent states: one for the Shia, one for the Kurds and so on and so forth.

CONAN: Lukemond, are you Kurdish?

LUKEMOND: Yes, sir.

CONAN: OK. I just wondered. I thought so.

Nathan Brown, he repeats an argument you hear from many Kurds and from increasing numbers of people who live in the area around Basra in southern Iraq, who say, `Look, we've got oil. We've got a wonderful port. Autonomy might be good for us, too.'

Prof. BROWN: Yes, and that's the really difficult issue. This started out--the idea of federalism was a way of dealing with Kurdish demands for some sort of autonomous status, but also recognizing that a lot of Iraqis did not want to let Kurdistan go and the international environment in the region wasn't all that conducive. Neighboring states weren't that big on the idea. So you had the federal solution really sort of suggest itself as a compromise.

Once it suggested itself, you're exactly right as to what has happened. Some Shia are beginning to say, especially those in the south, saying, `Look, we're dealing with this bloody insurgency, and yet this is really sort of a problem of the central area of the country. We've got things going far more decently down here.'

And that's exactly the worry of the Sunnis about this entire process, and probably one of the main reasons they decided to join into it rather than boycotting it because they were afraid that by the time that they finally did get Iraq involved in the political process, the country would have dissolved. But even among the Shia and the Kurds, who have sort of worked out something resembling an understanding of what federalism might look like, there still are deep divisions, as the caller suggested. A couple weeks ago, the Iraqi prime minister said, with regard to the arrangements that had already been negotiated, `Well, we're not in any hurry to implement them because we can have our elections first.' That caused such a firestorm among the Kurds that it almost led to a collapse of the constitutional negotiations. There just isn't much trust among these parties.

CONAN: We're talking about Iraq's constitution with Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Marziar(ph) in Washington, DC.

MARZIAR (Caller): Hello. I just have a question regarding the makeup of the group or committee that's drafting the constitution. My question is: What is--are there any groups that are non-Muslim, and are they showing any concern for too great a role of Islam in the constitution? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

Prof. BROWN: Yeah, this is a big question. You get seats in the constitutional committee in accordance with the strength of your parties in the parliament. And with Muslims being the great majority of Iraq, most of the members of the constitution drafting committee are Muslim. There is at least one Christian representative. I believe there's more than one, but I'm not certain. But there certainly are not an awful lot.

In terms of how that has an impact on the text, there's no doubt that what we're going to see is going to be an Islamic document or a document that acknowledges Islam in some fundamental ways. Those who are advocating a strong role for Islam will say, `Yes, we're doing that, but we're providing very strong guarantees for minorities,' that they can run their own religious communities in their own way, that they will have absolute freedom of worship and so forth and so on. This was provided, to some extent, in the country's Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution, written while the Americans were fully occupying the country, and they're basically taking some of that language from the Transitional Administrative Law on religious freedom and tinkering with it in this final draft.

CONAN: In the previous election, there was a requirement that women make up 25 percent of those in parliament. What's the representation of women on this drafting committee, and will that 25-percent requirement be preserved?

Prof. BROWN: Women are underrepresentative on--underrepresented, excuse me--on the drafting committee. I believe there's something like seven or eighth, so it's not even the full number--the full percentage that they're guaranteed in the parliament of a quarter of the seats.

In terms of what the final constitution will do, again, there are a lot of drafts circulating out there, but the comments of the drafting committee members seem to suggest that they will maintain the quota for women's representation in parliament. They won't increase it like some women's groups demands, and they won't expand it from the parliament to other high administrative offices, like women's groups demands and--this is perhaps the most controversial issue--they're talking about phasing it out, keeping it only for the next two elections, but canceling it after that.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we can squeeze in one call. Phil. Phil calling from Dunbarton in New Hampshire.

PHIL (Caller): Hi, Professor Brown. It's good to hear from you. I have a quick comment regarding the viability of the constitutional process. The issue that I see is severalfold. One is that really, as you've already said, the committee that is drafting is not representative of the total--the totality of groups in Iraq. The Sunnis are much underrepresented. But sort of an equally important issue is the timetable...

CONAN: And, Phil, is that your--is that it in a nugget?

PHIL: Actually, no. I'll actually get to the main point...

CONAN: We've got a minute left, Phil. Make it quick.

PHIL: ...which is that we're talking about a huge transformation from Sunni rule to Shia rule that this is something that is very much akin to the end of apartheid in South Africa. And it cannot be done in a two-month span of time. That's the nugget.


PHIL: We need to take another year at least.

CONAN: All right. Yet if there's an insurgency, Nathan Brown, and again, quickly, at least in Washington and in Baghdad, they say this has to be done quickly to get a legitimate government up that people will respect.

Prof. BROWN: They want a legitimate government. The Shia, who are now essentially dominating the central government, want to empower that government, are anxious to take their seats at the table and not have `interim' attached to their titles. But I would fundamentally agree with the caller. A constitution written on that tight time line may do that in a narrow sense, but is not going to reconcile all Iraqis with each other.

CONAN: Phil, thanks very much for the call. I'm sorry we were so squeezed for time.

And, Nathan Brown, we appreciate your joining us today.

Nathan Brown is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, and he joined the show from the studios of The Brookings Institution studio here in Washington.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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