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

Sunnis Urge Action to Block Constitution

Full participation in the referendum seen as the best way to vote down a document many Sunnis object to.
By Zaineb Naji

With most of their concerns ignored in the finalised version of the Iraqi constitution, the Sunnis who sat on the committee that drafted it are now focusing on the October referendum to get it rejected.

Religious and political leaders representing the Sunni community have joined the debate, displaying an engagement in the political process that stands in stark contrast to their declared boycott of the election last January.

The constitution, which was largely written by the Shias and Kurds on the drafting committee, was given preliminary approval by parliament, the National Assembly, on August 28, and only minor alterations were made before the definitive version was approved on September 18.

As the final changes were being discussed, Sunni members of the National Assembly and the constitutional committee continued to oppose parts of the document that concerned federalism, the de-Baathification process, the distribution of revenues from natural resources, and whether Iraq’s identity is Arabic or multi-ethnic.

The lack of consensus led to hours of heated debate and three postponements to submitting the final document to parliament. But just as when the first draft was produced last month, the Sunni objections were overruled and the constitution was passed, clearing the way for the referendum in which Iraqis will decide whether it should come into force.

"We tried so hard to get the articles that concern federalism and the identity of Iraq postponed for the next elected assembly to deal with, but others insisted on [keeping them in] and the support of political blocs played an important role in passing [the constitution]," said Sheikh Nasir Abdul-Karim, a Sunni who was part of the constitutional committee.

The constitution will be rejected if two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq’s 18 governorates vote against it.

“We will have our say in the vote,” warned Abdul-Karim.

As well as the vexed issue of creating federal regions, which Kurds and some Shia want and Sunnis oppose, another controversial point in the constitution is the wording that cites Islam as “a source” of legislation, in other words implying that future laws will be drafted taking into account Sharia but also other, secular legal traditions. Religious Sunnis and also Shia had wanted a stronger wording to make Islamic law the principal foundation of legislation.

“We reject any constitution that doesn’t depend upon Islam as the main source [of legislation],” said Sheikh Said al-Fayadh, a cleric.

Al-Fayadh, like many Sunni politicians and clerical figures, is demanding that the finished constitution should be published and distributed so that the public has as much time as possible to read it carefully.

In a complete departure from their calls for an election boycott in January, clerical leaders are urging their congregations to read the draft and vote in the referendum. Many are using Friday prayers to discuss the main objections to the constitution as it now stands.

"Sunni Arabs should not repeat the mistake of boycotting elections,” said Sheikh Saad Abdul-Jalil, the imam or prayer leader at the al-Ghaffar mosque in Baghdad. “I call on all Iraqis to vote and [also] to participate in the subsequent [parliamentary] election.”

Security measures for the referendum are a key concern for politicians determined to seek maximum turnout. In the January election, it was clear that – apart from the declared boycott – many Sunni Arabs in areas like Anbar governorate were too afraid to vote because of the risk they would be targeted by insurgents.

Ala Maki, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party who sat on the drafting committee, warns that the government will need to ensure that people in Iraq’s less stable areas are able to take part.

“We hope the Iraqi government will display wisdom and calm in its approach to the turbulent areas that did not participate in the January election, since this will have an obvious impact on the legitimacy of any decision made by Iraqis, and particularly the constitution," he said.

Like Abdul-Karim, Maki said he wanted to see the issue of federalism taken out of the constitution and instead placed before the new, permanent National Assembly that will be elected once the referendum is over.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Samarai, a member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars accuses certain political groups - which he would not name but are clearly non-Sunni - of making too much fuss about retaining the most controversial articles.

“If the constitution includes guarantees for all Iraqi communities, and if it ensures that there will be no return to dictatorship and that revenues will be distributed to all provinces according to their population, then why cling doggedly to those points?” he asked.

Some Shia leaders continue to do what they can to allay Sunni concerns.

Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the dominant, Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance in the National Assembly who was also a member of the drafting committee, said the most important thing was that the constitution had been finished at all – this was itself a “huge step for Iraq”.

Sidestepping the desire of Sunnis to use the referendum to stop the constitution in its tracks, al-Bayati said the future National Assembly would have powers to change any sections of it that currently raised objections.

“The articles not endorsed by Sunni members can be amended or changed in the future after the coming elections,” he said.

"What is important is participation [in the referendum] and defeating the powers of darkness that are trying to drive us backwards.”

Zaineb Naji and Daud Salman are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.