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Iraq's Constitution Heads to a Vote

Iraqis go to the polls on October 15th to vote on a draft constitution completed in late August after months of contention among the country's ethnic and religious factions.

Iraq's draft constitution is more than a structure for running a permanent government. It is meant to address past inequities suffered by some of the country's religious and ethnic groups, and it establishes conditions and institutions intended to support national unity.

A Rush to Finish in Time for the October 15th Referendum

The draft was completed nearly two weeks past the August 15th deadline, as delegates struggled for months over how to incorporate points of view that often conflicted. The Arab Sunni community's reluctance to get fully involved made writing the constitution even more difficult.

Analyst Phoebe Marr at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington says the basics were accomplished. "They did come up with a structure of government, for a parliament and for a legal system. And they have a pretty good human rights section as well," she says.

But Ms. Marr says the document also has its shortcomings. "They had a lot of trouble compromising on some key elements: first of all, the whole issue of federalism. There will be federalism, but how it's going to be structured, what are the federal elements going to be, and so on -- that's still unclear. And the distribution of oil revenue. These are holes in the constitution that need to be filled in," she says.

Unresolved Issues

The constitution's writers left many details on how federalism will separate powers between the central and regional governments up to future lawmakers. Regarding oil, the draft constitution is unclear as to whether the "demographical distribution" of revenues it calls for will be done according to the percentage of the total population each faction, such as the Kurds or Sunnis, represents.

In deference to the demands of the Shi'a community, the draft says Islam is the main source of law. But in deference to secularists, Islam is not defined as the only source of law. While the draft constitution goes on to say that no law can contradict Islamic principles, it also says no law can contradict the principles of democracy.

Changes Expected Even if the Constitution is Approved

Nidjar Shemdin, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil's representative in Washington, admits the draft constitution is not perfect, but he says its problems can be fixed later by the National Assembly which will be elected after the constitution is approved.

"We know that as a result of the compromises, not everything that we would like to see was in there," he says. "The other parties feel the same thing. They all know this [i.e., the constitution] is not carved in stone, that eventually certain things will be amended, and will be altered."

Some analysts say, however, that since the Shi'as and Kurds will undoubtedly take the majority of the seats in the next National Assembly, the chances of the Arab Sunnis, Turkmen and other factions to substantially change the constitution after its passage are probably limited.

Getting Arab Sunnis Involved

The Arab Sunni political party that dominated Iraq for decades, Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists, is banned by the constitution. Robert Malley, with the non-governmental International Crisis Group in Washington, says that provision has to be further defined to enable broader Arab Sunni participation in the new government.

"It is not made clear," he says "that one's membership in the Ba'ath Party alone is not a criteria for barring somebody from certain positions as opposed to the behavior that one had. It should be made clear that it's behavior and not membership that is the criteria for taking action."

The draft constitution also prohibits ethnic and religious militias. These militias have been blamed for increasing sectarian strife and are accused of threatening the stability of the central government. Under the constitution up for approval, all security will be in the hands of the military and official state units. The draft also bars the military from getting involved in political disputes.

Will the Constitution Win Approval?

With the draft constitution finished, the focus is now on the "Yes" or "No" constitutional referendum slated for October 15th. If two thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces say "No," the constitution will fail and will have to be rewritten. But Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says the content of the constitution itself may not be what will trigger approval or rejection.

"Many Iraqis are not going to actually read it [i.e. the constitution]. They're going to vote by religious sect, whether they're Shi'as or Sunnis. Or, they're going to vote by how religious or secular they are. They're going to vote in terms of ethnicity. What they're going to do is see what various leaders and figures say about it," he says.

Numerous reports have said the Arab Sunnis have been told by their leaders to vote "No" to force other groups to make broader concessions to them. Some leaders of Iraq's Turkmen have also called on their people to vote "No" for the same reason. Abbas Mehdi, a Shi'a in the United States who is with the Union of Independent Iraqis, says one last attempt at dialogue between factions is needed.

"It's going to be very dangerous if it's voted down," he says. "That would increase the gap between the Shi'as, the Kurds and the Sunnis. It might lead to the division of the country, actually. Before we go to the vote, they [i.e., all factions] need to reach out and talk with each other to avoid this huge political problem."

The Next Iraqi National Government

If approved on October 15th, the constitution sets the stage for elections on December 15th for a new parliament and national leadership, which will hold office for four years. Iraq, most analysts agree, would then have the structures for addressing the needs of both the state and its people, and the legitimacy to join the community of nations.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.