At the White House, looking for some distance from Iraq

The president's spokesman says the crumbling constitutional talks are "an Iraqi process." So why is the president on the phone with the Shiites?

By T.g.
August 26, 2005 5:04PM (UTC)
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At the White House press gaggle in Crawford early Thursday afternoon, Trent Duffy tried to put some distance between the president and the crumbling constitutional negotiations in Iraq. "It's not the U.S. position to be the play-by-play announcer," Duffy said of the efforts to get a constitution through Iraq's National Assembly. "We support what they're doing. They are working together in -- in a non-violent fashion to achieve a very important objective here, which is to write a constitution that can be durable; that represents the views of the majority; that respects the minority rights; that has women's rights; and has everything that, you know, that the international community wants, and that Iraqis want. Again, this is an Iraqi process."

By the end of the day Thursday, much of what Duffy said had proven to be either overly optimistic or just plain wrong.


Duffy said that the Iraqis were working together. That part was true, but barely. The National Assembly was supposed to meet Thursday to approve the draft constitution, but Shiite leaders -- frustrated that Sunnis haven't accepted a draft the Shiites and Kurds prepared without them -- threatened to bypass the body altogether and take their draft directly to the people. Sunnis, meanwhile, were threatening to vote down the constitution if it went to a national vote or to stay away from the polls, as they did back in January, to deny legitimacy to any new Iraqi government.

Duffy said that the process was nonviolent. It wasn't. While the negotiators themselves weren't shooting at each other, it seems that just about everyone else was: As the Washington Post reports, fighting between Shiites and Sunnis killed about 100 Iraqis Wednesday and Thursday in the deadliest outbreak of sectarian violence since the war began two and a half years ago.

Duffy said that the Iraqis hope to draft a constitution that would be durable and respect the rights of the majority, the minority and women. That may be the goal, at least for some of the negotiators, but it's probably wishful thinking. The majority's interests seem to be covered in the latest draft -- Shiites have an opening to break off much of Iraq into their own, oil-rich quasi-nation -- but there's not much in it for the Sunnis. And women? The draft could put decisions about issues like inheritance and divorce in the hands of Islamic clerics, leaving even the likes of Safia Taleb al-Suhail -- the Iraqi woman George W. Bush trotted out at his State of the Union address in January -- to complain that the United States is selling out women for the sake of getting some constitution done.


Duffy said, "This is an Iraqi process." It is, and it isn't. The U.S. government has been involved intensely in the discussions. Last week, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal that made Islam "a primary source of legislation" under the draft constitution, the New York Times has reported. And Thursday, the Times says, Bush himself intervened in the process, placing a call to a Shiite leader in which he urged the Shiites to make concessions to the Sunni minority in order to ensure legitimacy for the constitution.

The call was not without irony, of course. Bush has never been much of a fan of minority rights back home, and one of the issues on which he's pushing the Shiites to compromise is one his own administration flubbed early in the war. In May 2003, Bush's man in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, ordered the firing of virtually all Baath Party members. As the Washington Post has written, it may have been "the original sin" that led to the crisis that Iraq would become. "Bremer crippled Iraq's institutions of governance and security and created half a million angry and jobless people in the process," the Post wrote back in February. So what was Bush telling Shiite leaders Thursday? In order to win agreement from the Sunnis, they should ease up on their plan to ban the Baath Party from the new Iraq.



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