Iraqi constitution must deliver oil to Sunnis, or it won't deliver stability

The accomplishments of the Iraqi people in writing their constitution, due to be completed Monday, have already been quite impressive.

Unfortunately, however, doing a pretty good job under enormous time pressure and physical danger will not suffice in contemporary Iraq. With the security environment still extremely perilous and the economic state of the country improving only gradually, the political process is Iraq's main hope for escaping the vicious spiral of violence into which it has descended.

The United States may have an exit strategy - train Iraqi security forces, allow the political process to continue in the coming months, culminating in another round of elections, and then begin to go home. But Iraqis will have an exit strategy for their own violence, and a strong hope of avoiding civil war, only if they produce a constitution that goes down as one of the more remarkable political documents in history.

Many crucial issues are still in play in the constitutional dialogue - the role of Islam in Iraq, the rights of women, the nature of the legislature and regional voting rights, the special prerogatives of Muslim clergy including those with ties to Iran.

But the key to defeating the insurgency probably doesn't lie specifically in any of these important areas. Rather, the key to Iraq's near-term stability is quite simply the rights and prerogatives of the 20 percent of Iraqis who are Sunni Arabs.

It is this group that provides perhaps 90 percent of the insurgency's active fighters and most of its new recruits. It is this group amid which the insurgency lives, hides its arms, plots its attacks, finds its safe houses. And it is this group that is on the verge of being fundamentally marginalized, in political power as well as economics, by what is happening in the constitution-writing right now.

The crux of the problem is Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern Iraqi city inhabited by Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and others. The Kurds believe the city and its environs are historically theirs, and resent that the Arab population living there now was originally settled by Saddam Hussein to weaken their influence over a key part of Iraq's oil economy. The Kurds want not only the land back for the Kurdish families who once owned it - a reasonable enough proposition - but virtually all the rights and revenue to the oil produced in its vicinity.

On the surface, the Kurdish position may seem fair enough. Kurds account for about 20 percent of Iraq's population, as do Sunni Arabs, and if granted control of Kirkuk, Kurds would also have about 20 percent of the oil. All they are asking for, one might argue, is their fair share of Iraq's wealth, and direct control over it so that if an oppressive central government ever again comes to power in Baghdad, the Kurds will be positioned to go their own way if necessary - possibly pursuing independence, or at least the degree of autonomy they enjoyed between Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

There are two big problems, however. First, the temporary constitution promulgated in early 2004 under Paul Bremer specifically assured Sunnis that Iraq's natural resources belong to "all the people of all the regions and governorates of Iraq," and further underscored that oil revenue would be distributed equally and fairly through the national budget. Effectively the Kurds are demanding all the autonomy protections afforded them by that interim document while trying to remove the key resource-distribution provision important to the Sunnis.

Second, if successful, this Kurdish action will establish a precedent that Shiites may seek to emulate in the south, where almost all the rest of Iraq's oil is found. The Sunnis would probably see such a constitution as a deal struck between Shiites who will eventually dominate Iraq's central institutions and Kurds who covet eventual separation - and one that deprived them of their fair share of Iraq's national resources as well. The insurgency could become a civil war, if Sunni Arabs intensified their attacks on Shiite-dominated security forces and mobilized against Kirkuk or other oil-rich sectors of the country. Bosnia-style, mass ethnic cleansing could result; so could major damage to Iraq's oil infrastructure. And since the Sunni Arabs would probably lose the conflict, their region might then wind up a miniature version of what Afghanistan was in the 1990s - a safe haven for jihadists.

Unfortunately, focused as it has been on the foreign jihadist threat, the US has lost sight of how sectarian tensions have become the leading threat to Iraq's stability. The critical mistake was made after January's elections, when Washington insisted that Iraqis' courageous march to the polls was proof of their desire to be free. While partly true, undoubtedly, this interpretation obscured the degree to which Shiites in particular were voting to further their group aspirations and not simply to uphold democracy in the abstract.

In the waning hours of critical constitutional dealmaking in Iraq, the stakes are too high for the US to take a hands-off approach and provide only friendly, discreet coaching from the sidelines. Without a fair deal ensuring that most Iraqi oil revenue is treated as a national resource, to be distributed proportionately to regions on a per-capita basis, it is hard to see how the Iraqi constitution can defuse Sunni Arab paranoias - and hard to see how it can serve the broader goal of creating a stable democratic Iraq.

Edward P. Joseph coordinated democracy assistance to the Interim Iraqi government under a US Agency for International Development grant in fall, 2004; Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and founder of the Iraq Index there.

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