Small Wars Journal

Solving Iraq’s Constitutional Problems: The Hard Way

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 7:46pm

Solving Iraq’s Constitutional Problems: The Hard Way

Gary Anderson

The armed forces of the Caliphate, formerly known as ISIS, have finally resolved most of the issues left unresolved when the Iraqis wrote their constitution in 2005. A public administration professor told a class I was attending that; “if you don’t run your country, someone will. Nuri al-Maliki just found that out the hard way.

In 2005, I ran a simulation of the constitutional convention for the JCS as part of my work on a DOD Red Teaming contract. The purpose of the simulation was to attempt to identify the issues that would derive from the actual convention which was scheduled to occur the following month. We put together teams of Iraqi expatriates which represented the major ethnic and sectarian factions in Iraq. The three teams represented the major factions; Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds. We broke the Shiite group into two sub teams. We asked one Shiite group to take the position of the moderates who ran the existing provisional government, and another to take the pro-Iranian hard line of clergy such as Muqtada Sadr. The United States had put the proverbial gun to the Iraqis’ heads and gave them a time limit to come up with something resembling a constitution, so we gave our players one as well. Our Iraqis had three days to produce a product.

The simulation started in a civilized manner. Most of our players were academics, former diplomats, and one was Saddam era Baathist official who had defected when he fell out of favor in the early 1980s. However, by day three, the veneer of civilization had worn off and the knives came out. They may have been expats, but their sectarian and ethnic loyalties remained strong. There weren’t any fistfights, but it came as close as I have ever seen in an academic exercise. The players produced a product, but the only way to do it was to leave several key issues unresolved. This is not unique to Iraqis. As I remember, a few minor issues such as slavery were left unresolved when we crafted our constitution. The simulation was predictive as these were the same issues that remained problematical when the Iraqis presented their actual constitution months later.

Of the three primary unresolved issues, the degree of federalism was foremost and really impacted the other two. The predominately Shiite southern areas that included the great marshes and Basra, the county’s only seaport wanted a high degree of autonomy as did the Kurds who effectively had it anyway. Those who represented the Shiite Baghdad elites favored the highly centralized French-Japanese model that the country had practiced since independence the Sunnis favored a more centralized model as well.

A second unresolved issue was the sharing of oil and mineral wealth. The Sunnis who occupy oil poor areas obviously favored an equal division of proceeds by province. The Shiites favored need based distribution. The result was to stick with the status quo for a while even though that pleased no-one.

Finally, there was the status of Kirkuk, a predominately Kurdish oil-rich region that had been forcibly Arabized by the Hussein regime as a hedge against a move toward independence by the Kurds. The Kurdish players favored independence, but fully realized that a Kurdish declaration of independence would probably mean war with Turkey, and that was probably true at the time. They settle for the status quo which would leave Kurdistan semi-autonomous.

The May-July 2014 blitzkrieg by Sunni rebels led by ISIS changed all of this. Al-Baghdadi’s legions took over most of the Sunni dominated areas to include Mosul, Iraq’s second city; they got gas and now threaten the Baji oil fields. The Kurds, already autonomous due to the status quo agreement, became all but independent and got Kirkuk’s oil. The Shiite dominated rump region might hold the majority of the population but it became much more resource poor when the Kurds moved into Kirkuk in order to keep it out of the hands of the Caliphate wannabe. Ironically, Iraq got the three state solution proposed by Joe Biden in one of his unsuccessful presidential runs; although this is probably not the way he wanted it. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi solved all of Iraq’s constitutional problems while trying to destroy Iraq as a coherent nation-state. An independent Kurdistan suddenly doesn’t seem so bad to Turkey when contrasted with having an autonomous region ruled by jihadist loons on her border.

Short of an American intervention, which is highly unlikely in the near term, Iraq is effectively partitioned. It is highly likely that the strong central model of Iraq will ever return short of absolute victory by al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim, as he now fashions himself. The winner, of course, is Iran.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.


Craig Miller

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 12:08am

I'm not sure the U.S. is a winner either. A fractured Iraq probably poses less of a threat to Iran than the Saddam regime did. I'm not sure that makes them winners, but I don't see how Iraq's current form of federalism benefits anybody, other than the Kurds, and politicians. Our leverage over the elections remains to be seen. If al-Maliki won't step down, and there's no significant faction to replace him, the status quo is better than giving up power.

Mark Pyruz

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 10:49pm

I would argue that Iran is not the winner. Rather, the turn of events benefits the United States.

Prior to the onset of the 2014 Northern Iraq Offensive, Iran had not been satisfied with the security situation in Iraq or Maliki's handling of the Sunnis. Contrary to the personal beliefs of some here in the U.S., the Iranians seek a stable Iraq within Iraq's national borders, albeit one with a Shia led government attained through a participatory form of government.

The 2014 Northern Iraq Offensive has thrown this into a situation of flux. Without that offensive it would have been business as usual, with Iran having the advantage over the U.S. in its input efforts toward the formation of the Iraqi government. Now, with that offensive, the United States is able to effect a de-facto sanction on military support toward Iraq whereby this crucial U.S. support is made conditional on U.S. preferences in the adoption of the next Iraqi PM.

Both the Iraqis and Iranians realize that U.S. military support for Iraq in the form of U.S. tactical airpower (such as CAS) and heavy weapons replacement represents a potential war winner for the Baghdad government, whereas Iranian military support (limited, as it is also applied in Syria) represents only a level of stability and attrition warfare.

Moreover, the Iranians view the current Iraqi crisis as a theater of war adjoined to the related Syrian theater of war. Iran sees current setbacks in the Iraqi theater as an additional stress in the war against Gulf state-supported armed groups seeking to subvert the nations of Syria and Iraq.