I'll Tip My Hat to the New Constitution

Making sense of the latest Iraqi vote


Last Saturday, Iraqi voters decided whether to adopt a proposed constitution. As I write, we still don't have the final tally, but all indications are that the referendum will pass. And it's clear that far more Sunnis turned out this time than on January 30, when the country had its first elections since the U.S. invaded.

If you haven't been hearing the jubilation that erupted in January, that's partly because there's less of a consensus about whether this constitution is a good thing. Its declaration that "Islam is the official religion of the State and…a fundamental source of legislation" alarms not just doves but hawks who see the Iraq war as a fight against theocracy, and who have already watched unhappily as areas like Basra come under the control of God-fearing thugs. There's also the wave of sobering news that followed that earlier vote, reaching its darkly comic culmination with September's revelation that the number of Iraqi battalions fully capable of operating without American support, previously estimated to be three, is in fact one.

Above all, there's the sense that this step is still incomplete. The most important question about Saturday's vote is whether it will bring the country closer to or further from full-fledged civil war, and the answer to that depends on all the Sunnis who turned out this time after shunning the polls last January. If they've been drawn into the political system for good, that's a victory for ballots over bullets. But there's also the possibility that, having given this voting thing a try, they'll throw up their hands in disgust at where it's gotten them. In the words of Christopher Albritton, a former reporter for the New York Daily News and the Associated Press who now writes the blog Back to Iraq: "The absolute worst-case scenario is if the Sunnis come close to defeating the constitution, but fail. There will be accusations of vote-rigging and any political momentum the Sunnis felt was moving their way will be spent."

Patrick Cockburn laid out the U.S.'s best hope for retaining Sunni involvement in Saturday's Independent:

Up to last week Sunnis were united in their opposition to the constitution because they oppose federalism, devolving power to Kurds and Shia. But under a deal this week the constitution can be amended by the National Assembly to be chosen in an election on 15 December. Since Sunnis are likely to vote, unlike in January when they abstained, there will be more Sunni members of parliament. New amendments will then be voted on in a second referendum.

The compromise was brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, far more skilful than previous US envoys in Iraq, who sat in on all negotiations.

But even if that keeps the Sunnis relatively content for now—and some of their leaders are already crying fraud—it would only delay the day of reckoning. They'll still be outnumbered come December.

The best news for the Iraqi regime is that the insurgents were apparently unable to disrupt the vote. The hawks at Strategy Page argue that Baghdad "is getting better at running national elections under the threat of terrorist attacks. The legislative elections last January had fewer than ten million people voting (69 percent of those registered), and over 40 people killed by terrorists opposed to the elections. This vote, on the new constitution, brought out over ten million, and left fewer than ten dead." I can't vouch for those precise figures, but the body count is definitely much lower this time—great news from any humane perspective.

On the other hand, Albritton notes that "violence in the last 19 days…killed more than 450 Iraqi civilians. Saturday's quiet could indicate that the draconian security measures that banned almost all vehicular traffic, international travel and movement between provinces were effective in curbing insurgents' attacks. Or it might mean the insurgents just decided to keep their powder dry until a more politically opportune time." Needless to say, those options aren't mutually exclusive.

Finally: The Sunnis' main beef with the proposed constitution is that it could split the state into essentially autonomous entities. A bigger problem is that it would do this while carrying on the expensive pretense of a united country. Eugene McCarthy once joked that there's hardly a problem in the world that can't be blamed on British mapmakers, and the persistent divisions within Iraq—a deeply unnatural conglomeration carelessly carved from the colonies—is an obvious case in point. Saddam Hussein managed to hold his Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni subjects together, but who wants to emulate the methods of Saddam Hussein? Partition has problems of its own, but if Khalilzad's compromise doesn't keep the Sunnis within the fold, it's surely time for even Washington to give up the dream of a unified Iraqi state. Peaceful division is better than violent division, not just for the Iraqis but for those of us who'd like to see the troops home sooner rather than later.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).