Sunni leap of faith

Iraq's proposed constitution can be faulted for its contradictions and ambiguities. If those were its only problems, however, the outlook for this democracy-founding document would look a lot better than it now does, for constitutions the world over share these characteristics.

The greatest flaw is not what's in this draft, but how it was handled: presented to Iraq's National Assembly on Sunday over the objections of Sunni negotiators. In effect, one of the major groups in the three-legged stool that makes up Iraq is missing.

A constitution derives legitimacy and power from national consensus. The document hammered out in Baghdad this summer rightly declares it is "the people" who are "the source of authority" for constitutional rule of law. No consensus, no country.

Leaders of the minority Sunnis, who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, now vow to wage a campaign of opposition to the constitution, which comes to voters for approval in October. If two-thirds of voters in three Iraqi provinces reject it, then a newly elected parliament would have to write a new document. With enough votes this fall, the Sunnis could indeed put the process back at square one.

But it's not too late for a Sunni buy-in. And surprisingly, it's the contradictory and ambiguous nature of the proposed constitution that could help bring Sunnis on board.

Chief among the objections of Sunni negotiators is concern about federalism - the structure that envisions a weak central government in favor of strong regions.

This was fine with Sunnis as long as that strength applied only to the Kurds of the north, who already enjoy a high degree of autonomy. But when, in the homestretch of negotiations, majority Shiites of the south decided they wanted that same autonomy, Sunnis feared being left out in the cold. Kurds and Shiites, blessed with oil and gas reserves, would have the resources to break away from their former oppressors and stand as independent nations.

While the proposed constitution reinforces Sunni fears by opening the door for Shiites to form their own megaregion, it can also reassure them.

For one thing, it specifically calls for the federal government to "maintain the unity of Iraq." For another, it addresses the Sunnis' real fear, which is losing out on oil wealth. "Oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people," Article 109 declares, and the federal government is to work with the regions and provinces so that these "revenues will be distributed fairly."

Perhaps it will help the Sunnis to realize they're not the only ones having to hope for a benign interpretation of an ambiguous constitution. Secularists and those concerned about women's rights could be alarmed by the provision that no law "contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam," yet encouraged that it bars gender and religious discrimination.

Iraq needs the Sunnis in order to stand as a unified nation. It can risk further civil unrest and even civil war by waiting to develop a more perfect union through a more perfect document. There's no guarantee of that. Or it can start forging national consensus now, by approving an imperfect constitution that becomes better through pressure from the people.

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