On Saturday, October 15, Iraqis will go to the polls to vote on their new Constitution. The Bush administration is betting that Iraqis will turn out in massive numbers to vote "yes" and that the election's success will bring an end to the guerrilla war. There a several problems with that view.
First is the question of relevancy. The few Western reporters who can work outside the Green Zone in Baghdad have interviewed quite a few Iraqis on how they'll vote in the referendum. Most have expressed a mixture of apathy and fear: why a Constitution and not clean water? Why not bring the Iraqi people reliable electricity or medicines for their hospitals first? This Constitution was written by exiles, and Iraqis feel it has no relevance for them. Many fear that the polls will be targeted by suicide bombers or that guerrillas will follow and shoot people leaving the polls on election day.
Other Iraqis have not read the Constitution yet. The printing started too late, and security problems have hampered distribution. The UN has the task of printing the draft Constitution and distributing it, but a workable draft wasn't available until early September and then two weeks were wasted while US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad forced the Shiites and Kurds to make cosmetic changes that were supposed to get the Sunnis to sign onto the draft. But that failed, and several more days were wasted while the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority each provided different drafts of the Constitution to the UN for printing. The Shiites insisted that, because they held a majority in Parliament, the whole Parliament didn't need to vote on a final draft; the Shiite draft was the final draft. But the UN insisted that the rules be followed: Parliament must vote. After several more days, the Shiites and Kurds reconciled their different versions and Parliament passed a draft on September 27. Printing began that day--more than a month late.
Even after the printing began, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a massive political blunder, insisted that changes could still be made to the Constitution to appease the Sunnis. Iraqi technocrats joked that the Constitution should be distributed as a PowerPoint presentation to make changes easier.
The delays meant that the first copies hit the streets of Baghdad on October 5, a scant ten days before the election. According to the UN, the last copies will be printed and distributed by October 14, the day before the vote, which leaves little time for Iraqis to read and debate a document that could shape their future for decades to come.
Distribution of the draft Constitution has not gone according to plan, either. The UN wanted businesses that distribute goods through the UN food program to hand out the document (80% of Iraqi families have signed up to receive UN food rations). But many businesses have refused to take the copies and make them available; some have already been threatened by guerrillas, others are fearful of attacks. In addition, delivering copies by truck around the country is fraught with risk--when and if the UN can find drivers who'll take the chance. Two days after the first copies of the draft Constitution arrived in Baghdad, reporters noted that distribution was going very slowly inside the capital city and was not going on at all in the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is doing its best to make sure that most of the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province will not be able to vote on October 15th. US troops have been conducting two military offensives in Anbar: Operation Iron Fist along the Syrian border and Operation River Gate throughout the Euphrates River Valley. The war continues unabated in Anbar in the form of aerial bombing campaigns, artillery barrages, and intense urban fighting. The US modus operandi is to surround a town or village and force everyone to leave, then conduct house-to-house searches that result in heavy urban combat with whomever remains behind, whether they're guerrillas or civilians who stayed to protect their homes and businesses. Pentagon spokesmen in Washington DC claim that the offensives will cease in time for the October 15th vote, but US generals inside Iraq haven't received those orders yet; they say the offensives won't stop until December at the earliest.
The Shiite majority is trying very hard to suppress the Sunni vote, too. On October 3, they voted in Parliament to change the referendum rules so that a two-thirds majority of registered voters in any three provinces would be required to vote "no" in order to reject the draft Constitution. The original rules used only the word "voters," which was widely interpreted to mean voters who went to the polls on election day. The addition of the word "registered" set the standard so high that it was nearly impossible to meet. Most nations, including the US, never see two-thirds of registered voters turn out to the polls on any election day, much less voting together on a given issue or candidate.
The Sunni reaction was immediate: they threw up their hands and said, "What's the use of participating at all? We're going to boycott the election!" The UN protested, saying that the rule change wasn't up to international standards. The Bush administration realized that it was better to avoid the appearance of unfairness and that the rule change would further alienate the Sunnis (the whole exercise is meant to draw the Sunnis into the political process, as Khalilzad's blunder revealed). Under intense pressure from the UN and the US, the interim Iraqi Parliament voted to change the rule back to its original wording.
Initially, the two-thirds rule was meant to be a fail-safe to ensure Kurdish participation in the political process. The Kurds control three provinces in the north of Iraq and they insisted on having the ability to veto the Constitution if they didn't like the outcome. This forced the Shiites to make common cause with the Kurds. That the Shiites unilaterally changed the rule may have contributed to a growing rift between the Shiites and Kurds that came to a head last week when Kurdish President Jalal Talababi called for the Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to resign. This announcement shocked everyone inside of Iraq and out (well, in those nations where it made the news, of course, which doesn't include the US).
Talababi and the two Kurdish groups that he represents are extremely frustrated with the Shiite majority. First, the Shiites have increased ties with fundamentalist Iran, which makes the secular Kurds uneasy. Secondly, the Kurds are unhappy that they've received few of the lucrative government ministries that they wanted. The few ministries under Kurdish control have been underfunded and ignored. And finally, the Shiites haven't made good on their promises to speed up the resettlement of Kurds in Kirkuk, the northern oil city that the Kurds want to eventually annex into the northern Kurdish enclave. Talababi's move was emblematic of how fragile the Shiite-Kurdish coalition is. It also was a warning to the Shiites--a reminder that the Shiites need the Kurds to help them pass the Constitution on October 15th.
While the Sunnis can muster a hefty "no" vote in Salahadeen and Anbar provinces (provided they'll be allowed to vote), getting a two-thirds majority in a third province will be harder. Their best shot may be Nineveh, which has a mixed population of Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrian Christians, and several smaller minority groups who are against the Constitution because it provides a mechanism for the Kurds to possibly annex all or a part of Nineveh into the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
Back in January, during the elections for the interim Parliament, Nineveh was the site of massive vote fraud perpetuated by the Kurdish peshmerga militia which was given the task of maintaining security in Nineveh. Kurds stole ballot boxes, tampered with ballots, stuffed extra ballots into boxes, and prevented the distribution of ballots and ballot boxes to non-Kurdish controlled towns. In one town, US troops who were overseeing the election alongside the peshmerga joked that the town had a 500% voter participation rate. For the upcoming October vote, the Kurdish peshmerga will once again be in control in Nineveh, working to ensure that the Constitution gets a majority "yes" vote.
But the Sunnis have an ace in the hole: Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric, has been alienated by the current Shiite majority coalition in Parliament. He has refused to either endorse or denounce the Constitution and says he'll rule on it in the day or two before the vote. In the past, he has issued multiple denunciations of US policy and of the interim government and, in recent weeks, his political aides and the leaders of his militia have been arrested and harassed by US and British troops in Baghdad and Basra.
But al-Sadr is
a force to be reckoned with. He's extremely popular among young
urban and impoverished Shiites. His militia controls the largest
neighborhood in Baghdad, the predominantly poor Sadr City, which
contains about two million people. If he tells his followers to
vote against the Constitution, the city of Baghdad, which is a
province in itself, may vote it down. If that happens, the Bush
administration and its proxy government in Iraq may never recover
politically or militarily.