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Iraqi Lawmakers Miss, Dismiss Constitution Deadline

by Brian Dominick

Rather than allow its own dissolution, the Iraqi National Assembly voted at the last minute to extend deliberations over the country's new constitution while factions iron out major differences.

Aug. 16, 2005 – After deadlock on key issues such as federal government structure, Islamic law and oil ownership continued through delegates’ last day of deliberations over a new constitution, members of Iraq’s transitional National Assembly voted hastily but illegally to extend the deadline by a single week.

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According to the US-imposed interim constitution, a draft of the permanent document was to be finalized and approved by the 275-member Iraqi National Assembly before midnight on August 16.

If the Assembly wished to grant an extension to the committee, it was to do so by August 1. At least partly in response to diplomatic pressure from Washington, Iraqi lawmakers had failed to extend the deadline and instead spent two weeks pressuring delegates to produce a draft. Rather than accept its own dissolution, which the interim constitution instructs should happen if no draft is approved by August 15 and no extension granted by August 1, the Assembly bought itself another week.

Some Iraqi lawmakers reportedly dismissed the validity of the existing, American-authored temporary constitution, calling it a foreign imposition. Tariq Al-Hashimi, who heads Iraq’s biggest Sunni political party, told Aljazeera TV that his party rejects the "sanctity" of the current Transitional Administrative Law, according to the Associated Press. Similar justifications apparently enabled the assembled legislators and the presidential council to unanimously approve the seven-day delay in contravention of the interim constitution.

There was no word yesterday about whether a secret proposed draft reportedly introduced by the US earlier this month had anything to do with the persistent impasse. The Observer reported on Sunday that a US-authored example of a potential constitution had been passed along to Iraqi lawmakers by "American diplomats."

While details of the American draft are not known, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called it a path to compromise, The Observer reports. On Meet the Press this week, Khalilzad denied manipulating the Iraqi constitution, insisting instead that his involvement has been "to provide bridging options, when there have been disagreements, and Iraqis, obviously, will decide if they can choose or ignore the options that we have provided to them."

The American proposal’s introduction at the 11th hour was widely seen as an attempt to avert constitutional delegates’ previous moves to postpone the looming mid-August deadline. The Bush administration has kept consistent pressure on Iraqi parliamentarians to generate a draft on time.

Sticking Points

The delegates have failed to reach agreement on key issues that were tabled until the end of months-long deliberations.

One involves the role of Islamic law, or sharia, in the new Iraq. Shia delegates representing the more reactionary, religiously based political parties are pushing for sharia as the primary basis of future Iraqi legislation. Relatively moderate delegates from all sects have largely consented to including an Islamic basis as "one of" the foundations of the Iraqi legal code.

Additionally, the constitutional committee could reach no agreement about the ownership and control of Iraqi oil. Currently controlled by the government, the future of Iraq’s much-sought-after oil industry remains in dispute, with some pushing for massive privatization and openness to foreign investment and others insisting Iraq’s oil wealth should be held nationally.

Finally, and also having much to do with oil, Sunni Arabs on the committee are said to have held up a vote by resisting efforts by Shia Arabs – generally backed by Kurds – to create the possibility for an autonomous region or regions among nine of Iraq’s southern provinces. By permitting referendums on partial sovereignty for the oil-rich Shia region, the measure would effectively enable the creation of a Shia sub-state not unlike the arrangement enjoyed by Iraqi Kurdistan in the North.

Sunni Arabs, whose minority population enjoyed relative privilege under Saddam Hussein, is concentrated in Central and Western Iraq. Sunni delegates have expressed concern that the weakening of Iraq’s federal government will permit their disenfranchisement.

Next Steps

Some Shia and Kurdish lawmakers have hinted that they might try to use their significant majority in the Assembly to override Sunni objections and push a through a constitution that favors their peoples and regions.

The constitutional committee now has until August 22 to produce a draft for approval by the National Assembly. That draft would be taken to the Iraqi public, and adult Iraqis would vote to accept or reject it on October 15.

At that time, however, a two-thirds majority in any three provinces could kill the constitution, sending the whole process back to square one. Fear of a Sunni voter veto is thought to be what has so far held Shia lawmakers from following through on recent threats to ram their preferred draft through over Sunni objections – an end-run Shia and Kurdish representatives theoretically have the numbers to achieve.

However, if a draft is not produced and presented to Iraqis this month, the National Assembly will supposedly dissolve and leave the Presidential Council and US-led occupation authorities in unchecked control of the entire country until a new parliament can be popularly elected in the fall through a procedure similar to that carried out this past January. That assembly would then have up to a year to produce a constitution for popular approval.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brian Dominick is a staff journalist.

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