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    Middle East
     Oct 18, 2005
Iraq's Oslo moment
By Mark LeVine

With the approval of the revised constitution on Saturday by a strong majority of its citizens [1], Iraq would seem to be poised to enter a new and peaceful phase of the post-Saddam Hussein era.

But viewed from the perspective of the Middle East's recent history, particularly the failed negotiating strategies behind the collapse of the Oslo peace process, Saturday's referendum will likely neither end the insurgency nor bring the country closer to significant democratic development.

The original draft of the constitution did set important benchmarks

for democracy and personal freedom for Iraqis. It even concludes with a statement on environmental protection that Americans should envy.

But these advances are overshadowed by what the constitution left out. Specifically, there are no references to three issues that are of primary concern to most Arab, and especially Sunni Iraqis: a prohibition on the long-term presence of foreign - read American - troops in the country; a firm statement emphasizing Iraqi control of production and distribution of the country's oil resources; and a commitment to rebuilding the social infrastructure that was devastated by the invasion and subsequent wholesale privatization of the country's economy under US auspices.

For most every Arab Iraqi the withdrawal of all American and other foreign troops is the sine qua non for ending the insurgency. That the constitutional negotiators couldn't include any prohibition of foreign troops, or deal straightforwardly with the other two core issues, demonstrates the continuing and largely deleterious power of the US in the country's internal affairs.

In this framework, three out of the four amendments passed last week to assuage Sunni voters will not achieve their aim. The first amendment, adding the phrase "The constitution is the guarantee of the unity of the country", might have important symbolic value, but is meaningless if the violence and insurgency continue. The second, mandating Arabic as an official language in Kurdistan, will also make little difference for Arabs living in Kurdistan if, as is case with Arabic in Israel, official recognition is not translated into acceptance by the Kurdish majority of Arabic as a language of public discourse.

The third amendment, slowing down the de-Ba'athification program and ending the purge of former party members who weren't directly involved in the former regime's crimes, is the one positive step of the four, as it will go a long way to ameliorating the concerns of Sunni politicians, and even ordinary workers, who were part of the Ba'ath Party during the previous regime.

But the final and most important amendment, setting up a parliamentary committee to suggest a one-time set of changes or amendments to the constitution after the elections in December, will likely not bring any of the changes to the constitution that Sunnis are demanding.

Even if every eligible Sunni voter had voted on Saturday and in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December, they will remain too small a minority to change the constitution in a manner that would shift significant resources, revenues or political power away from Kurds and Shi'ites and to their communities.

Because of this, the statement by President Jalal Talabani that the constitution had addressed all Sunni concerns is simply not true. More accurate is the statement made by Shi'ite legislator Saad Jawad that the last-minute amendments were "an added bonus" to convince Sunnis to vote for the constitution without making any substantive changes to the balance of power enshrined therein.

Given this situation, it is highly unlikely that Sunni leaders will change their view of the insurgency as the only true bargaining chip they have to force Kurds and Shi'ites to sacrifice some of their power, or to achieve a full withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq.

And so it appears that the constitutional process being celebrated in Iraq and Washington is setting up Iraq to repeat the mistakes of the Oslo peace process, where negotiations over the hard issues were continually postponed on the assumption the process would move forward with enough momentum to force compromises at the end stage.

But as in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, without significant improvements on the ground in peoples' lives, and strong confidence that their country will be free of foreign troops and have a functioning economy in the near future, even significant progress at the political level progress will be no match for the anger of millions of Arab Iraqis, Sunni and Shi'ite alike, at a new order in which they can reasonably claim to have little, if any stake.

[1] More than 61% of registered Iraqi voters took part in Saturday's referendum on a permanent constitution. Initial results suggest that Kurdish and Shi'ite "yes" votes swamped the Sunnis, not surprising as Shi'ites and Kurds respectively comprise about 60% and 20% of Iraq's 27 million people. The constitution will pave the way for elections in December that will replace the transitional administration with a four-year parliament and the first permanent government since the 2003 invasion.

Mark LeVine, professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, Culture and Islamic Studies, UC Irvine. Author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005)

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