Pessimism Clouds Constitution's Prospects

By Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 24, 2005; 10:30 AM

As the Iraqi National Assembly considers the latest draft of the country's proposed constitution, Tuesday's headlines in Baghdad suggested a capital city close to meltdown.

The minister of electricity was fired, said Al-Bayyna, a weekly paper published by the Hezbollah movement, because power is off 11 times more often than it is on. The power shortage caused a water shortage and completely halted oil exports from the southern part of the country, according to translations in the Iraqi Press Monitor.

And the independent daily Addustour added that radical cleric Moqtada Sadr has called for a silent protest against the country's poor public services.

About the only good news was Addaawa's report that the first phase of the war crimes investigation against Saddam Hussein is complete. But that was matched by Al Mashriq's story that the National De-Baathification Committee, which is supposed to purge the country of Hussein's influence, has been shut down.

This portrait of Iraq today, compiled by Iraqis, underscores the pessimism, among Iraqi and non-Iraqi observers in Baghdad, that has greeted the news that the National Assembly will vote Thursday on new national charter.

The combination of two missed deadlines, continuing violence, the very visible role of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and the objections of secular Sunnis and women's rights groups explains why the reaction from Baghdad falls short of the positive statements emanating from Washington.

"There is no doubt the U.S. war on Iraq is still raging and that the boots of foreign troops are running the country rather than a national government," wrote columnist Fatih Abdulsalam Tuesday in Azzaman, one of the city's biggest circulation dailies. "Is it right then to write a constitution under such circumstances?"

"Imagine the Germans or the Japanese writing a new constitution while battles were still raging across their countries and their major cities were under the mercy of violence and insurgent attacks," he wrote.

"But that is exactly what is happening in Iraq. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, who invaded the country, realize the war they started is still on but act as if was not."

"The point is how to stop this war and bring peace and stability to the country. We are afraid a constitution written under such circumstances will not do it," he said.

"In that case we will be left with the only alternative: a timetable for a quick departure of U.S. and British occupation troops," Abdulsalam concluded.

Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar complained last week that "the US ambassador to Iraq attends all the constitution meetings and gives the Iraqi stakeholders some printed 'suggestions' to break the deadlock, while the Iraqi resistance's assassinations and attacks are getting stronger and more effective."

"US decision makers are still refusing to face the truth," he wrote from his home in Amman, Jordan. "The premature elections this year were more than enough to convince anyone of the fact that Iraq won't be rebuilt if we continued working on the same path: Bush's path of lies and failure.

"The Iraqi constitution shouldn't be rushed through. Iraqis have the right to take as much time as they need to write their country's constitution," he said.

British correspondents also sounded skeptical about the draft constitution hammered out late Monday night by Shiite and Kurdish politicians with little input from the country's once dominant Sunni minority.

"Far from sealing Iraq's post-Saddam era, the draft appeared to be quickly fracturing the fragile edifice of government," said The Independent of London, "with Shia and Kurdish parties declaring they were prepared to use their parliamentary majority to push through the document in the teeth of Sunni opposition."

The document, said the paper's Baghdad correspondent, is threatening to "drag the country into civil war."

Kurdish leaders were adamant that they will make no more concessions, before Thursday's vote, according to an Agence France Presse story carried by a Kurdish news site.

The heated opposition of Sunni political leaders, said The Financial Times, is "a setback for U.S. policy."

Saleh al-Mutlek, the most vocal of the Sunni representatives, said he would campaign against the constitution when it comes up for approval in a nationwide referendum.

The most positive reaction came from the Shiite south, The Washington Post reports, and from Iran and Lebanon, countries that, like Iraq, have sizeable Shiite populations.

The Daily Star in Lebanon suggested the draft constitution was better than nothing and accused the Sunni leaders of " overplaying their hand" by saying the new charter might provoke a civil war.

"Such strongly worded warnings do little to enhance stability and security in the country and amount to little more than authoritarian-inspired pressure tactics," the editors said.

In Iran, a government spokesman also voiced support for the draft constitution, calling it "a valuable and very important step in order to preserve the independence and territorial integrity, to help stabilize security and establish peace, and consolidate the indisputable right of the Iraqi nation to determine their own fate."

In short, Iraq's constitution, which U.S. officials hoped would forge national unity, has instead forged Shiite and Kurdish solidarity and a sense of foreboding about the future of Iraq.