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Now they are cutting land

The Shi'ites and the Kurds each want a bit of Iraq. Sunnis react with rage.


Something is in the box regarding Iraq's new constitution. There will be a distribution of power as we know it from the West: a legislative, an executive and a judicial body that together balance each other. The parliament will consist of two chambers, the top of which will represent provinces and regions. Both chambers will be directly elected, in a system of constituencies – and not as it was in January when all citizens voted together on national lists. Each region will have a number of senators (or what they will now be called) in proportion to the population of that region.

This is agreed upon. And it is also agreed that the real power should lie in parliament – in practice the lower house. It is the parliament that will elect the prime minister, the ministers and the president, and it will monitor what they do at all times. The elected representatives can keep the prime minister by means of trust, or overthrow him by means of distrust. It is a completely classic, parliamentary system, and necessary – because the prime minister gets a lot of power: as the "highest authority" in the country, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

And it is in the wake of this that the president will be a ceremonial figure who cuts the cord and represents the state abroad.

In addition: there is plenty of agreement on how the courts should be set up and functioning, how religious centers should operate and funded (what function they now have within the state constitution) and what the central bank should do.

And it is not small; after only a few months of work in the Constitutional Commission.

But the big things are not agreed. And what does that mean for Iraq's future?

No agreement

After weeks and months of overly positive signals from the Iraqi as well as the American side, it was time this week for some "stick-your-finger-in-the-ground" recognition: there is no basic agreement on what Iraq should be, and it is not certain this agreement will manifest itself rather.

On Monday, the Constitutional Commission failed to come up with a final proposal to Parliament in time, and on Tuesday it became clear that the parties had set a new deadline for themselves: August 22. At the same time, it came to light that the Shia have taken a whole new line in relation to the question of federalism and oil revenue sharing. Where the Shia parties have previously wanted a centralized state, they will now get rid of nine of Iraq's southern provinces in an autonomous region ruled by themselves.

There are half of the country's 18 provinces, and in addition the part of Iraq that sits on most of the oil wealth. Not surprisingly, Sunni Muslims have reacted with rage to this latest outing, which has led the Constitutional Commission to consider submitting the final draft to an almost Sunni-empty National Assembly with no prior agreement in the commission.

The lack of agreement and the ability to keep the deadline almost led to a parliamentary crisis before the formal deferral was adopted. But unless the Commission and Parliament fail to agree / adopt a new constitution before the next deadline, new elections must be held. And still, all the old controversy related to the Constitution remains, such as the Kurds' demand for autonomy, control of the city of Kirkuk, and the distribution of oil revenues.

federalism: The conflict is now between the Kurds and the Shiites on one side, and the Sunnis on the other. The Kurds will have full control in the three provinces that are part of the "Kurdistan region," and also the oil city of Kirkuk as the "capital" of a thriving region that includes larger Kurdish areas.

It is terribly close to a program of national liberation, and many are the Kurdish citizens – two million, it is claimed – who have signed petitions that the Kurds should go their own way – alternatively that the 3.7 million inhabitants themselves should decide this in a referendum.

The Kurdish areas in the north, known as the "Kurdistan Region", include the three provinces of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. But the Kurds also want:

Kirkuk: One could say that the Kurds have history and justice on their side regarding the right to Kirkuk. For Saddam Hussein, he was no worse than killing or expelling the Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk (as well as the rest of Kurdistan) until the late 80s. How many were murdered do not know; only in Al Habja there were many thousands in 1987.

In the years that followed, the displaced Kurds were replaced by Arabs. And the same thing happened as always after forced deportations: the Arabs moved into the houses that had belonged to the Kurdish residents. Today, many of these have left the area again. And thousands upon thousands of Kurds have returned.

The two Kurdish parties KDP and PUK encourage settlers from the High North to settle in Kurdish areas outside the "Kurdistan region." In January this year, they got the go-ahead for around one hundred thousand of the old Kirkuk residents to be allowed to vote there, and not in the cities they were forcibly sent to. It shook the fragile ethnic balance of the city.

Iraqi Arabs, Assyrian Christians and Turkmens fear that the Kurds, by manipulating a majority, will take over Kirkuk, add both the city and the province of the same name to the Kurdish areas, and then expel all the others. They are fueled by fears of a Kurdish deputy governor in Kirkuk who believes that "three hundred thousand Kurds must enter and three hundred thousand Arabs must leave."

Islam: This is basically a fairly simple conflict. The Shia want a state that is Islam only source of inspiration for the law, while the Kurds want a completely secular state. In other words, it is about whether the state is governed by Sharia law or not.

Language: The question here is whether Kurdish should be equated with Arabic as a national language.

The rotten deal?

In many ways, it has been easier for the Kurds and Shia to agree, than it has been for these two to agree with the Sunnis. The reason is that the Kurds and Shiites are at the outer ends of an axis that is about what the state should be. Paradoxically, this has facilitated a unified compromise: if the Kurds got everything they wanted in the north, the Shia could get everything they wanted in the south. In other words; autonomy in the north with Kirkuk and oil revenues and everything, and ditto autonomy with all oil revenues combined with Sharia law in the south.

It's a rotten deal that the Sunnis have feared all along. But it is too early to say whether the horse trade is real, or whether the Shiites use the demand for autonomy in the south to jack down the Kurds in the north. In any case, the constitution must be adopted by both the parliament – where the Sunnis do not sit – and by the people, where the Sunni Muslims have a say.

Both Sunnis and Kurds can block the constitution despite the fact that they only make up twenty percent of the population each. The reason is that two thirds of the inhabitants of three provinces are in a de facto veto. This means that if two thirds of the Kurds in the three provinces in the north reject the constitution, yes, it will be dead. The same goes for the Sunnis – and for the Shiites for that matter.

The intention is for the people to vote on the constitution on October 15. But this can quickly be postponed. This means that the elections in December may have to be pushed into the New Year. And yet it is thus that not even the first stage of this long sprint has been completed.

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