Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sunnis Rejoin Constitutional Process

Lawmakers are back on board despite intimidation – and many Sunnis seem to be following in their footsteps.
By Mohammed Fawzi

Sunni participation in the political process in Iraq appears to be back on track after nearly a week of jitters caused by the killing of two men involved in drafting the new constitution.

Sunni Arabs walked out of parliament’s drafting committee following the July 19 assassination of fellow-member Mijbil Issa and legal adviser Dhamim Hussein al-Obeidi, both Sunnis. They returned to work on July 25, after announcing they talked with their Kurdish and Shia colleagues on the committee and secured a promise of bodyguards and other security measures.

“We didn’t ask for miracles; we simply asked for our rights,” said Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Sunni Endowment, who was involved in negotiations over Sunni participation on the committee. The solution that brought the Sunnis back on board was “not a favour to us, but is to enhance stability and security”.

The Sunnis joined the committee earlier in July in a deal designed to give their community a say in writing the constitution, in the hope that the document will enjoy wider legitimacy and acceptance once it is finished.

The original 55 members of the drafting body – most of whom were from the Shia and Kurdish factions which came first and second, respectively, in January's parliamentary election – were joined by 15 Sunni Arabs, from a community which finds itself underrepresented in parliament and government because so few turned out to vote.

The boycott, although temporary, took up precious time since the deadline for finishing work on the constitution is August 15.

But it also highlighted the continuing tensions between Iraq's various communities, in particular the obstacles to enticing the Sunnis into mainstream politics.

While the Sunni committee members took their action because they wanted to work within the political process but were not prepared to be killed off for doing so, the bigger issue is whether the Sunni Arab population and the political forces that represent it have shifted from the position in January, when large numbers stayed away from the polls either as a deliberate boycott or because they were too scared to turn up.

Iraqi media have reported that Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a leading member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group, has spoken out against the constitution-drafting process, because in his view it is under the control of the United States.

But the signals coming from other Sunni political figures indicate that they do not share this rejectionist view.

Al-Dulaimi says it is now time for Sunnis to become active participants in politics. “Moving the Sunnis away from the political process doesn’t serve any group, or the region or the world either,” he said.

Sabah al-Kubaisi, who heads the al-Karkh branch of the Iraqi Islamic Party, says that next time round - in the election scheduled to take place in December once the constitution is in place - his party is going to encourage Sunnis to take part, and will carry out voter education beforehand using the media and the mosques.

“Sunni participation in the political process is to protect Sunnis and to have our demands met through a peaceful, political solution,” he said.

Sheikh Abdul-Nasir Karim al-Janabi, secretary-general of the National Dialogue Council – a body made up of several Sunni political groups – says it too will be urging people vote in the elections.

At the same time, al-Janabi justified the January boycott, citing the military operations carried out by the US-led Coalition to take control of Sunni towns. Even now, he argued, "there is no real political solution and the government is under the shadow of occupation”.

Al-Janabi's apparently ambivalent views are shared by many Sunnis interviewed by IWPR. They too thought at the time that it was right to stay away in January but intend to cast their vote next time.

Rabia Mahmud did not vote in January "because the election was conducted under the supervision of the occupying forces". But when it comes to the December polls, Mahmud will vote because "we have to have our role in the new government - now I regret not having participated in the last elections".

Abdul-Karim Dhahir, a Sunni, sits in a Baghdad café with his friend Mohammad al-Husseini, who is Shia, discussing whether or not to vote.

"How could you want me to take part in the last ballot while most of my family members were suffering because of the government?” Dhahir asked his friend.

But the US assault on towns like Fallujah has ended, and Dharir has changed his mind, saying, "I will participate in the forthcoming elections so as to ensure there are Sunnis present in the government. I've realised the importance of taking part.”

Mohammed Fawzi is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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