Aug. 23, 2005 – In what some analysts and Iraqi legislators note is a clear violation of explicit rules set out in the US-imposed interim constitution of Iraq, the countryâ€™s parliament failed to either approve a new draft constitution or dissolve itself as mandated by the directives left behind by the former occupation authority.
Operating under a legally questionable timetable following last weekâ€™s postponement of a vote, lawmakers were supposed to vote on a draft constitution, drawn up by a 72-member constitutional committee, by midnight on Monday. The draft would then go before the public in a nationwide referendum.
After reportedly excluding minority Sunni Arab politicians from the process over the past seven days and overriding the dissenting views of the weaker, more secular of the two largest Shia parties, members of the committee charged with creating a draft constitution announced they had an agreement just minutes before the deadline. But, they did not provide the draft to Assembly members and there was no vote on the document or on a further extension by the midnight hour.
Instead, in what was widely described as a chaotic series of moments, Speaker of the Assembly Hachem Al-Hassani announced that the constitutional committee had granted itself an additional 72 hours to hammer out remaining differences, a move permitted nowhere in the existing legal guidelines.
"Today, we have received the draft of the constitution, but there are some undecided points," Al-Hassani announced just before midnight, according to New York Times reporters who apparently witnessed the event. "So these points will be dealt with in the forthcoming three days."
Shortly thereafter, most Iraqi lawmakers left the room in dismay, according to numerous reporters at the scene in the Assembly chamber of the Baghdadâ€™s Green Zone.
An unlikely coalition between generally secular Kurdish lawmakers and members of the hardline Shia fundamentalist party are reported to have pushed through a draft.
By some accounts, not only the Sunni Arab committee members but many others as well were either left out or circumvented last week as more powerful political, religious and community leaders working with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad stepped up to manage the documentâ€™s language.
Though the announcement of an agreement on language was likely an attempt to comply, at least in part, with the Monday night deadline, Sunni representatives on the committee said consensus was far off.
They issued statements to the press expressing deep disappointment and anger with the constitutional writing process as well as the draft itself, while the head of the drafting committee, Humam Hammoudi, a Shia Arab, told reporters that it would likely take longer than 72 hours to resolve the remaining differences.
The Assembly needs only a simple majority to approve the draft constitution and send it to voters. Hammoudi and others involved in the drafting process told reporters that if no agreement could be reached, the Assembly might approve a draft without Sunni endorsement. Sunni Arabs are proportionally underrepresented on Iraqâ€™s National Assembly with just about 10 percent of the Assembly representing what is estimated to be a 20 percent minority group.
But analysts say passing the draft constitution without agreement from Sunni representatives poses its own dangers. If the Assembly manages to approve a draft by simple majority, it is then supposed to go before the Iraqi population by October 15, during which a two-thirds majority opposition to the document in any three provinces would nix it. Sunni Arabs are at least a slight majority in four of Iraqâ€™s eighteen provinces.
"This constitution will divide the country," predicted Saleh Al-Mutlaq, one of the Sunni Arab negotiators on the constitution committee, in an interview with the Associated Press.
The original deadline for approval of a draft constitution by the National Assembly was August 15. Since last weekâ€™s decision by the National Assembly to extend the timetable by seven days, Iraqâ€™s government has been operating on shaky legal ground. The interim law, handed down by then-US administrator Paul Bremer and the Interim Governing Council he appointed, states that the National Assembly must approve a draft constitution by August 15.
The Assembly could have asked for up to a six-month extension, but would have had to vote on that by August 1. Under intense pressure from the Bush administration, Iraqâ€™s representatives did not decide to give themselves more time until August 15, when it became clear that an agreement could not be reached. The interim constitution clearly states that if the Assembly fails to approve a draft constitution by August 15 and fails to obtain an extension of the deadline by August 1, the Assembly must dissolve itself, fresh elections must be held and a new constitutional writing process must commence.