What's going on with Iraq's constitution?

Don't Panic

By the time you read this, Iraq's leaders will have written a constitution.

Or not.

The drafters have already missed their legal deadline of Aug. 15. They had to ask Iraq's assembly to grant them an extension (I can relate — just ask my editors). The new deadline is Aug. 22, but who's to say they won't miss it as well?

Why is writing the Iraqi constitution taking so long? Lots of reasons.

Have you ever written one? Me neither, but I hear that it's seriously hard work, mainly because the people writing it repeatedly massage each phrase of the document trying to get it just right. For example, did you know that up until the last minute, the U.S. Constitution began: "Us da peeps in, like, America, best be getting along and shit." It's true. Look it up.

It actually took five months in 1789 to write the U.S. Constitution, even though the committee doing it included visionary, get-it-done statesmen like George "One Dollar Bill" Washington, Alexander "Ten Dollar Bill" Hamilton, Benjamin "The Benjamins" Franklin, and James "Shoulda Been Me — Uh, Not Sacagawea" Madison.

Iraqis have been at it even longer, and they still haven't finished. Decades of dictatorship have left Iraq without Washingtons or Hamiltons to shepherd a constitution along. But even if the ghost of James Madison was whispering in every Iraqi's ear, writing a constitution for that country would be a daunting and thankless task.

The main problem is that the country's three major populaces have vastly different visions of what their country (and, hence, their constitution) should look like. For instance, the Kurds want the constitution to be written in 14-point Helvetica, while the Sunni Arabs think that sans serif fonts are for infidels.

More to the point, after decades of being horrifically dominated by Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the Kurds and Shi'ite Arabs want a constitution that guarantees them as little interference from Sunni Arabs as possible.

The Kurds in northern Iraq want a constitution that creates a federal system granting the Kurds such wide autonomy that Iraqi Kurdistan will pretty much become a separate country. The Kurds are also angling to make sure that their autonomous region includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Iraq's largest group, Shi'ite Arabs, also want autonomy in their regions. Some Shi'ite leaders have in fact started demanding a Shi'ite mega-province in the south.

Sunnis don't like the idea of Kurds and Shi'ites having regional autonomy. They like the old system, the one in which Sunnis got to dominate the rest of the country. It's not just nostalgia motivating Sunnis, though. Most of Iraq's oil is in the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south. If those regions are largely independent, Sunnis are afraid they won't get to share in the wealth. Why should Sunnis buy into a constitution that would leave them destitute?

The three groups need to strike a compromise that manages to give Kurds and Shi'ites enough autonomy to make them happy, while also giving Sunnis enough of what they want to make them feel invested in Iraq's new order — and abandon the largely Sunni-supported insurgency. Working out a constitutional framework is just a first step in the process. It's a balancing act that will go on for decades if Iraq is to remain intact.

There are other sticking points besides federalism. The exact role of Islam in public life still needs to be worked out. There's no disputing that Islam will be part of Iraq's legal system in one form another. But which version of Islam — and to what extent — remains to be decided. Shi'ites don't want a Sunni version of Islamic law, and vice versa.

Several reports indicate that women's rights are also a sticking point in the negotiations. Since it's decided that Iraq will be some sort of Islamic republic, I imagine that the women's rights debate is simply about the precise nature of how Iraqi women will be oppressed. I know that sounds snobbishly Western of me, but show me an assertively religious government that doesn't trample on women's rights and I'll apologize.

Assuming they get this constitution written and passed by the legislative assembly, Iraqi voters will get to decide on it Oct. 15. If a two-thirds majority of voters in three of Iraq's provinces reject the constitution, it will not take effect.