New constitution is progress for Iraq

It runs long on ideals but does not address many of the country’s practical problems.

It was hard not to smile when the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council gathered in Baghdad on Monday to sign an interim constitution. The document that will govern Iraq after the United States transfers power in June enshrines a broad set of rights, including freedom of speech and equality before the law. While significant obstacles lie ahead, the new constitution is the clearest sign of progress in Iraq yet.

The signing ceremony had been delayed twice in recent days, once by a series of attacks that killed more than 180 Shiites, then by a last-minute political dispute between ethnic Kurds and majority Shiites. The 13 Shiites on the council, backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had objected to a clause that gave Kurdish regions in northern Iraq effective veto power over passage of a permanent constitution next year. Those objections softened over the weekend, and on Monday 12 of the 13 Shiites followed the ceremony with promises to amend the constitution in the coming months.

Few democratic states have been able to avoid contentious debates over minority rights and majority will. Iraq is no different. Carved from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and divided by ethnic and sectarian fault lines, the national unity Iraq will need to govern itself is far from a reality.

While the new Iraqi constitution runs long on ideals, as all constitutions do, it says little about a host of practical problems facing the country. How an interim Iraqi government will look next summer is a mystery to many. How national elections – slated to take place before January – will work is even less clear. But the most vexing question might be how a federalist Iraq will look, with power divided between national and local governments.

If Iraq is to be “republican, federal, democratic and pluralistic,” as the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority put it, the country’s principal players will have to learn the art of compromise. Signs of that art are in welcome supply this week.