Ominous signals

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

The vote on the draft Constitution in Iraq widens the Sunni-Shia rift and threatens to take the country one step closer to civil war.

in Dubai

ON October 15, Iraqi citizens voted in a referendum on a draft Constitution that has the backing of the United States and the United Kingdom, and the country's Shia and Kurdish communities. Sunni leaders have opposed the document, saying that it is part of a larger game plan to deprive their community of political power and access to the country's oil wealth. There is an apprehension that under the new Constitution, Shias and Kurds would exercise political autonomy over southern and northern Iraq respectively, where most of the oil is located. Sunnis are concentrated mainly in central Iraq, where no significant oil discoveries have been made. About 15.5 million of Iraq's 26 million people were registered to vote. An estimated 9,775,000 cast their ballots in the referendum, that is, 63 per cent of the registered voters.

Sunni leaders appealed to their followers to vote in strength in order to reject the draft. They had a chance to do so, if they could muster two-thirds majorities in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. Sunnis are in a clear majority in two provinces and outnumber other population groups by thinner margins in two others. A rejection of the draft Constitution would be an embarrassment for the U.S. as it would mean that the exercise of drafting would have to begin afresh, after the elections scheduled for December. Election officials said 93 per cent of eligible voters turned out in the Sunni-dominated city of Falluja after clerics went house to house telling residents that it was safe to step out.

With high stakes involved, the referendum was dogged by controversy. Iraq's Chief Electoral Officer Adel Alami said the voting pattern was a matter of concern. In some provinces almost all the votes approved the draft and in others the negative vote was overwhelming. Officials said that in the circumstances, there was no option but to audit the ballots, in accordance with internationally accepted rules. Unsurprisingly, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) could only declare partial results by October 22. Nevertheless, there were indications that the draft would eventually be approved.

According to the trends announced, over two-thirds of the voters rejected the draft in the Sunni-dominated Sallahudin province, the home region of former President Saddam Hussein. There were indications that 81 per cent of the voters rejected the document. The authorities said that results in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, the epicentre of the resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, were yet to be declared. However, the overwhelming view was that voters there would reject the draft.

With signs of two provinces rejecting the Constitution, the focus shifted to the two enclaves - Diyala and Nineveh - that had significant Sunni populations but where communities in favour of the draft were also strong. In Diyala, initial tallies showed that the electorate may have narrowly supported the Constitution, with an estimated 52 per cent voting in favour and 48 per cent against. In Nineveh, which has a mixed population of Arab Sunnis and Kurds, an estimated 70 per cent voters reportedly endorsed the draft. The figure was questioned as improbable, for in cities such as Mosul, Sunnis, who are opposed to the draft, are in strength. Media reports suggest that the initial figure has been revised, showing that only 55 per cent voted for the draft.

Meanwhile, remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the draft had been approved caused resentment. A day after the referendum, she told mediapersons in London: "There is a belief that it has probably passed." Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak responded: "I believe it is a signal to the IECI to pass the Constitution." Some election personnel too have questioned Condoleezza Rice's remarks. Hussein Hindawi, an IECI official, said he was "surprised" by the observation. "As far as I know, she does not work at the IECI," he said. Karina Parelli, head of the United Nations Election Assistance Team in Iraq, said: "Unless Rice is more well-informed than the IECI, thus far there is no way to know the turnout percentages or the results of the voting."

THE referendum is likely to deepen Iraq's ethnic and religious fault lines, as Shias and Kurds see it as a historic opportunity for political assertion in a country that Sunnis have traditionally dominated. There are provisions in the draft that Shias could utilise to their benefit. For instance, Article 115 opened the door for regional "autonomy" with real powers of decision-making. It says that every province has the right to establish a region based on a request for a referendum which could be submitted in two ways: One-third of the members in each of the provincial councils that wish to establish a region can make the request, or one-tenth of the voters in each of the provinces can seek the establishment of a region. The pro-Iran Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which exercises control in nine out of the 18 provinces, can easily establish a region in the oil-rich southern and south-central Iraq.

The draft, which is widely suspected of having been scripted by the Americans, has left practically no role for Sunnis, who have been at the forefront in seeking the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq. Article 16 of the new Constitution, which had sections relating to the presence of foreign forces, was reportedly deleted a few days prior to the referendum. The article said that foreign forces were forbidden from using Iraqi territory as a base or corridor for sending troops to other regions. It also denied the use of Iraq as a foreign military base. The National Assembly, however, could overturn both the provisions by mustering a two-thirds majority.

External meddling that is likely to deepen Iraq's sectarian divide, with Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia playing lead roles, cannot be ruled out. Iran, which seeks to deepen its influence in Iraq and beyond, has had no problems in supporting the draft backed by its arch-foe, the U.S., for it anticipates that it would help formalise the emergence of a Shia-dominated government. Hence it came as no surprise when Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the referendum as a "great and blessed job". Delivering a sermon at Teheran University, Khamenei said: "Those who blow up mosques and kill Shias are neither Sunni nor Shia. They are against Islam." In the sermon, which was broadcast live on national television and radio, he called upon Iraqis to vote in December's general elections.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as a protector of Sunni interests in the region, has been resentful of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recently said U.S. policy had deepened sectarian tensions in Iraq to the extent that the country was effectively being handed over to Iran. Iraq's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr responded by saying that Saudi Arabia discriminated against its own Shia community. He said Iraq would not accept "a Bedouin on a camel teaching us about human rights and democracy. In Iraq, we are proud of our civilisation".

With powerful external backing from either side, the Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq threatens, as never before, to degenerate into a civil war.

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