Iraq constitution: referendum for disaster

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies reaches conclusions similar to those of WW4 REPORT’s recent commentary on Iraq’s pending consitution. Bennis writes in “The Iraqi Constitution: A Referendum for Disaster” (online at TruthOut): “The constitutional process culminating in Saturday’s referendum is not a sign of Iraqi sovereignty and democracy taking hold, but rather a consolidation of U.S. influence and control. Whether Iraq’s draft constitution is approved or rejected, the decision is likely to make the current situation worse.” Especially insightful are her brief discussions on the related questions of control of Iraqi oil and federalism:

Control of Iraqi Oil
The major debates between Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities, as well as between secular and Islamic approaches, sidelined any debate over crucial economic, especially oil, policy decisions in the constitution. The draft asserts that “Oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and provinces,” and that the federal government will administer the oil and gas from “current fields” with the revenues to be “distributed fairly in a matter compatible with the demographic distribution all over the country.” But that guarantee refers only to oil fields already in use, leaving future exploitation of almost 2/3 of Iraq’s known reserves (17 of 80 known fields, 40 billion of its 115 billion barrels of known reserves), for foreign companies – because the next section of the constitution demands “the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.” Further, Article 11 states explicitly that “All that is not written in the exclusive powers of the federal authorities is in the authority of the regions.” That means that future exploration and exploitation of Iraq’s oil wealth will remain under the control of the regional authorities where the oil lies – the Kurdish-controlled North and the Shia-dominated South, insuring a future of impoverishment for the Sunni, secular and inter-mixed populations of Baghdad and Iraq’s center, and sets the stage for a future of ethnic and religious strife.

While the specifics of oil privatization are not written into the text of the draft constitution, they are consistent with the proposed Iraqi laws announced in August 2004 by the U.S.-appointed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He called for private companies, including foreign oil corporations, to have exclusive rights to develop new oil fields, rather than the Iraqi National Oil Company, as well as at least partial privatization of the INOC itself, thus essentially selling off Iraq’s national treasure to the highest foreign corporate bidder.


The division of Iraq into three major ethnically- or religiously-defined regions or cantons remains a long-standing fear of many Iraqis and many people and governments across the region and around the world, and the most important basis for opposition to the draft constitution. In historically secular Iraq, the shift in primary identity from “Iraqi” to “Sunni” or “Shia” (although Iraqi Kurdish identity was always stronger) happened largely in response to the U.S. invasion and occupation; it does not reflect historical cultural realities. The draft constitution promotes not just federalism as a national governing structure, but an extreme version of federalism in which all power not specifically assigned to the central government devolves automatically to the regional authorities – setting the stage for a potential division of Iraq largely along ethnic and religious lines. The draft anticipates a weak national government, with financial, military, and political power all concentrated within regional authorities. The proposed constitution states directly that all powers – military, economic, political or anything else – “except in what is listed as exclusive powers of the federal authorities” are automatically reserved for the regional or provincial governments. In all those areas of regional power, the provincial governments are authorized to “amend the implementation of the federal law in the region” meaning they can ignore or override any constitutional guarantee other than foreign affairs or defense of the borders.

Besides the economic/oil conflict, this means that regional (read: religious and/or ethnic) militias accountable to political parties and/or religious leaders will be given the imprimatur of national forces. The process has already undermined Iraqi national consciousness, and sets in place risks for both national and, ironically, sectoral interests affecting each of the groups – even the most powerful.

While we agree that the new constitution sets the stage for a yet greater disaster, Bennis may underestimate the degree to which the current radical shift away from secularism has roots in internal Iraqi dynamics as well as US intervention. Certainly, the US has played Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups off against each other, but it could not have done so with such effectiveness if the Kurds and Shi’ites did not have profound and legitimate greivances against the old regime. Saddam’s oppression of the Shi’ites is what provided such fertile ground for Washington’s (and Tehran’s) exploitation of Shi’ite clerical-nationalist ambitions. And while the federalist model may only inflame violent regional factionalism, a return to centralized control from Baghdad hardly seems to provide an alternative—it is, to a large extent, what got us into this mess in the first place. In any case, the truth of Bennis’ final, ominous sentence is all too evident: “Ultimately, instead of balancing the interests of Iraq’s diverse Muslim majority with its once-dominant secular, the draft constitution…makes permanent Iraq’s current occupation-fueled turn towards Islamic identity.”

See our last post on Iraq.