The Washington Times

So, this is what a liberal constitution in an ethnically diverse, Islamic Middle Eastern country looks like, this draft constitution of Iraq.

The unwillingness of Sunni negotiators to go along with the draft is a serious loss. But a review of the document itself quickly reveals just how dubious the Sunni objections to it are.

It makes obvious sense for Iraq to have a federal structure in which substantial authority devolves to its major regions: Kurdistan in the north, the Shi’ite regions in the south, as well as the Sunni region in the center. A unitary Iraqi state is a complex puzzle to put together outside the context of rule by force. Any voluntary association has to be built on a foundation of significant local autonomy. Without reassurance along those lines, ethnic populations would find it difficult to feel much in the way of allegiance to the central government. In the long run, that is a recipe for possibly violent splintering.

The Sunnis are a minority of about 20 percent of Iraqis. What ought to be the biggest concern of such a group is the protection of minority rights. Sunnis should be eager to embrace provisions allowing for the legal creation of a Sunni region capable of seeing to the organization of its own affairs. An Iraq with a strong central government capable of nullifying any and all regional laws and decrees that contradict those of local authorities – which is to say, an impossible Iraq to create, given the sentiments of most Iraqis – would inevitably be dominated by the country’s Shi’ite majority.

It’s a measure of the progress of democratic sentiment in Iraq that Shi’ite negotiators understood the need for regional autonomy and didn’t try to pursue a path that would have led to their lopsided dominance over all matters Iraqi. Unfortunately, Sunnis haven’t been able to make that leap, at least not yet.

Why not? The temptation is to think that the answer must be because of a dream that one day, Sunnis will dominate Iraq as they did during the reign of Saddam Hussein. They don’t want a federal Iraq because they want once again to call all the shots from Baghdad.

That could be the reason, and no doubt it is orthodoxy among the insurgents. But as to how you get from here to there, it’s hard to see. Suppose the United States loses heart in the face of a gaining insurgency. Would a U.S. bug-out be so complete as to abandon the Kurds and the Shi’ites to a new Ba’athist Sunni regime? Even if the United States gives up on the Sunni triangle, it’s hard to see why the Shi’ite areas and especially Kurdistan will have to go undefended. Moreover, the Kurds and the Shi’ites themselves have something to say about the return of Sunni dominance. In a worst-case, civil war scenario, the Sunnis are at greatest risk. If the rejection of the constitution is meant to open the road to power by conquest, it’s a dubious proposition.

One provision of the draft constitution is worryingly anti-Sunni, at least in potential, and it pertains to the not inconsequential matter of oil revenue. In the unofficial translation of the Aug. 24 draft, Article 110 provides: “The federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution all over the country.”

So far so good. But the provision continues: “A quota should be defined for a specified time for affected regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime or later on, in a way to ensure balanced development in different parts of the country. This should be regulated by law.” That begins to look like an ill-advised warrant for reprisal and reparations of a kind that could doom chances of winning Sunni support for the new constitutional order.

Still, it seems to me a more plausible reason for the Sunni rejection than legitimate grievance or fantasies of a return to power is the acutely dangerous state of politics in Sunni Iraq. It is, quite simply, a very dangerous time to be a dealmaker.

If two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq’s provinces, four of which are majority-Sunni, reject the constitution, it fails. Sunni leaders are said to be organizing voters.

To which one must reply: Good. Participation in the political process is what matters, and a large turnout in Sunni Iraq in opposition to the constitution might just show Sunnis how much they have to gain by embracing a democratic Iraq.

Moreover, one lives and learns, but I think Sunni rejectionist elements who are confident that they can defeat the constitution once Sunni Iraqis are voting in large numbers by secret ballot may be mistaken. And, of course, if Sunnis do not exercise their option of scuttling the constitution, its ratification will create a new opening for Sunni participation in the new government.