Last Chance for Iraq


Hours before the second deadline for Iraq’s new constitution on August 22, Shiite and Sunni Arab leaders met in a conference room at the Baghdad headquarters of Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani. The Shiites wanted the constitution’s preamble to mention Saddam Hussein’s atrocities and the Sunni negotiators were objecting. Guests sipping tea in the adjacent reception room heard voices rise in anger, and then Nabeel Musawi, a Shiite parliamentarian with a long record as a human rights campaigner, came out of the meeting. “The Sunnis,” he said, claim that “Saddam only killed five farmers in the south and some Kurds.” Nabeel’s father disappeared after being arrested by Saddam’s security services in 1981, one of 300,000 Shiites murdered by the Baath regime during its thirty-five years in power. Another deadline was missed.

Three days later, President Bush telephoned Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric who leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraq’s largest and most pro-Iranian political party, to ask for concessions on behalf of the Sunni Arab negotiators on the controversial issues of federalism and de-Baathification. Hakim politely thanked the President who, not being well versed in the intricacies of Iraqi politics (or even its broad outlines), was reduced to pleading that his requests be taken seriously. The President then said something about protecting women’s rights and Hakim assured him they were sacred.

The call was pointless. Bush was asking Hakim to make concessions that the Sunni Arab negotiators themselves did not consider sufficient. Hakim’s idea of women’s rights is very different from what Bush wanted, but the President did not know enough to respond to the cleric. The Hakim episode reveals just how clueless the President and his advisers are about the divisions in Iraqi society. Small concessions cannot paper over the differences between the victims of horrific atrocities and those who deny that any crimes took place. There was also no small amount of hypocrisy in the President’s expressions of concern about women. His diplomats had already agreed to soften key protections for women, and two days before expressing his concern to Hakim, Bush had publicly congratulated Iraq on “a democratic constitution that honors women’s rights.” While the President’s personal intervention into the Middle East bargaining was predictably feckless, his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, did much to produce the constitution that emerged. Days after taking up his post in early August, Khalilzad summoned Iraq’s top leaders to the capital’s Green Zone, initiating three weeks of nonstop talks that produced the Kurdish–Shiite deal that is expressed in Iraq’s new constitution.

The Shiite and Kurdish leaders who negotiated Iraq’s new constitution did so on the basis of a strong electoral mandate from their voters for the positions they advocated—the only undemocratic part of the process was the Bush administration’s inclusion of unelected Sunni Arabs. But the administration’s insistence on the deadlines in Iraq’s interim constitution—an insistence related to the President’s plummeting poll numbers and not to the concerns of Iraqi leaders, all of whom wanted…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your account.