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Iraq: Shi'ite Leader Says No Negotiations On Core Constitutional Principles

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (file photo) (epa) Iraqi Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said this week that Shi'a would not negotiate on the core principles outlined in the Iraqi Constitution. His remarks contradict an agreement Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders forged with Sunni Arabs in October, and threaten recent attempts to bring Sunni Arab parties into a national unity government.

Al-Hakim, who also headed the winning United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) slate in Iraq's 15 December parliamentary elections, told followers during his Eid Al-Adha sermon at SCIRI headquarters in Baghdad on 11 January that any political group intent on participating in a national unity government must show commitment to certain "constants" -- accepting the constitution, de-Ba'athification, and rejecting terrorism.

"We [Shi'a] have a group of constants that we will never relinquish; they became constants after long, immense suffering. These constants, therefore, should be taken into consideration in any future coalitions. Any party seeking alliance with us in order to participate in the government, should abide by these constants," al-Hakim said.

The Shi'ite leader's comments are sure to draw fire from Sunni Arab parties -- particularly the Iraqi Islamic Party -- which supported the constitution in the 15 October referendum after the UIA and the Kurdistan Coalition agreed that the incoming National Assembly would have four months to amend the document.

Sunni Arabs have several problems with the constitution in its current form, most notably the contentious issues of de-Ba'athification and federalism.

Some Shi'a also reject federalism. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who allowed his followers to run on the UIA list in the 15 December elections, believes federal structure would lead to the breakup of Iraq.

Are Shi'a Paying Lip Service To National Unity Government?

While al-Hakim contends that the UIA supports the idea of a national unity government, his viewpoint suggests a hardening of the Shi'ite position that, as the largest parliamentary bloc representing the majority of the population, it has the right to steer the direction of the new, democratic Iraq.

Such a position does little to build confidence within the Sunni Arab community, which has at best been skeptical of the political process in Iraq. However, it is doubtful that al-Hakim's posturing, which replicates the prereferendum positions of many secular and religious Shi'a, would have any real impact on Sunni Arab participation in the government.

It is certain, however, that the Shi'ite position would prolong efforts to build real national unity. It would also exacerbate the existing fractures within the Sunni Arab community.

For example, the Iraqi Accordance Front, which comprises three major Sunni Arab parties and emerged as the strongest Sunni bloc in the elections, may be willing to accept contentious issues such as federalism in return for guarantees on the unity of the state and the sharing of natural-resource revenues. Other Sunni Arab groups, such as the Muslim Scholars Association, will remain steadfastly opposed to federalism.

Most Sunni Arab groups maintain that the federal model, which allows for the formation of regional governments, would lead to the eventual breakup of Iraq into three states. Though some Sunni groups support the idea of a Kurdish region because of the Kurds' recent historic experience and separate ethnic identity, they do not support the establishment of one or more regional governments in other areas of the country.

Oil Is The Key

Oil is at the heart of the issue; the vast majority of Iraq's 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves lie within Shi'ite- and Kurdish-populated governorates. Should Shi'ite Arabs follow the Kurdish example and form their own regional government(s), Sunni Arabs would be forced to operate their governorates independently, or form a regional government in the governorates where they constitute a majority population: Diyala, Salah Al-Din, and Al-Anbar. While none of those governorates would be economically sustainable in the near to medium term, the constitution guarantees some level of financial support from the central government.

Article 110 of the constitution states: "The federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and governorates on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographic distribution all over the country. A quota should be defined for a specified time for affected regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime or later on, in a way to ensure balanced development in different parts of the country. This should be regulated by law."

The constitution does not provide for future oil revenues from wells yet to be tapped, however, leaving Sunni Arabs living outside oil-producing governorates increasingly vulnerable to potentially devastating economic disparities.

Article 116 provides that the central government allot "a fair share of the revenues collected federally" to the regions "in a way that suffices [the government's] duties and obligations, taking into consideration [the region's] resources and needs." While the article is a clear attempt to correct any future disparities, it will be left to the government's discretion to determine the level of support given to each region. Sunni Arabs will likely demand stronger guarantees if they are to support the constitution.
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