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September 23, 2005

Sunni Side of the Street

One big hurricane has passed, one more is coming. One Supreme Court vacancy has been all but filled, the other is coming. Domestic issues glow brightest on the radar... but while all of this is going on, we are still fighting a war against terrorists in Iraq. A key battle will be fought on October 15, when Iraqis go to the polls to ratify or reject their proposed constitution. It's generally agreed that if the constitution fails to be ratified, it will be because of opposition from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. (Note that it's important to say Sunni Arab and not just Sunni; the Kurds are mostly Sunni and they're wholeheartedly in favor of the constitution.)

The vote will be a federal vote: each province will vote independently of the other. A one-third minority is required to carry a province in favor of ratification. Ratification by 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces will put the Constitution into effect.

It's hard to find an issue on an American ballot that would fail to garner 33% of the vote, so one would think that unanimous ratification by all 18 provinces would be a sure thing. Unfortunately, Iraq's population isn't very homogeneous. The provinces are split between majority-Kurdish, majority-Sunni-Arab, and majority-Shi'a Arab.

Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, until recently in control of the nation, comprised mainly Sunni Arabs. (The Sunni Kurds, being of the "wrong" race, were not part of the ruling class.) For thirty years the Sunni Arabs have held dictatorial authority over the country. And, as it happens, they're maybe 15-20% of the population. And under the new Constitution, they feel they would be marginalized.

My question is: why does anybody care? The Sunni Arabs were a religious and ethnic minority ruling harshly over a large majority that was of a different religion and/or race. Why is it necessary to take their feelings into account?

Let's set the Wayback Machine to 1994. For decades, South Africa's white minority has been ruling over (and oppressing) its black majority. International and internal pressures have battered that regime to the breaking point, and it's coming down. A new Constitution is drafted. While the previous Constitution gave special privileges and immunities to whites, the new one guarantees equal rights to all, regardless of race.

Now, imagine the white minority protesting this. "Wait a minute," they say, "that's fair! Under that system, we'd only have influence proportional to our population! That isn't right! We object, we object, we object!" Can you imagine the world's reply? Can you imagine any reply other than, "Shut the hell up, Oppressor!" What chutzpah! Years and years of enjoying unequal rights and unequal privileges, and they have the gall to object to equality? They're lucky that they're given equal rights rather than being strung up by their thumbs!

Except this is exactly the situation the Sunni Arabs of Iraq find themselves in... except whites formed a slightly larger minority in apartheid South Africa than the Sunni Arabs form in Iraq. Why is anybody treating their objections seriously? Why are we bending over backwards to accomodate their sensibilities?

What exactly are the Sunni Arabs bitching about? Well, what else is there to bitch about in the Middle East? Oil, of course. See, as it happens, most of the oil is under the provinces that are dominated by the Shi'a in the south and the Kurds in the north. The fields near the Kurdish city of Kirkuk are particularly rich. Under Ba'ath rule, the oil of the entire country, including that under the Kurdish provinces and that under the Shi'a provinces, went to enrich the Sunni Arabs. Here's what the draft Constitution says about the oil:

Article (109): Oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and provinces.

Article (110):

1st -- The federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution all over the country. A quota should be defined for a specified time for affected regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime or later on, in a way to ensure balanced development in different parts of the country. This should be regulated by law.

2nd -- The federal government and the governments of the producing regions and provinces together will draw up the necessary strategic policies to develop oil and gas wealth to bring the greatest benefit for the Iraqi people, relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.

See that? It distributes the oil fairly. Now, I'd much prefer the Constitution mandated the privatization of the oil fields, but this is about as good as I could have expected. Oil belongs to all the Iraqi people in all the regions and provinces. That's a heap sight better than "Oil belongs to the Sunni Arabs, neener neener neener." Naturally they're squawking. But the world should do more than ignore them. The world should counter them. I can't believe that the Sunni Arab people are as pigheadedly determined to achieve an unfair distribution of oil revenues in Iraq as their leadership.

Much has been made of the Arabic cultural sense of honor. In fact, barbaric practices have been condoned or at least excused on the grounds of violations of that honor. Let's let the Sunni Arabs prove that they are honorable. Let's shame them into agreeing to a fair distribution of oil revenues. Anybody who votes No on the Constitution because it distributes oil fairly is a thief. Thieves are traditionally viewed as socially anathema in Arabic cultures, and are also traditionally dealt with harshly but effectively when caught. You hear me, Sunni Arabs?

September 23, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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"Specifically, while saying Iraq's oil and gas are the property of the Iraqi people, it distinguishes between old and new wells. As for existing wells, 'The resources should be distributed in a fair manner appropriate to the population balance around the entire country, with specific allocations for regions damaged and unfairly neglected under the previous regime.' For future oil exploitation, the federal government is granted a role in developing strategic oil-pumping policy, it is not assured of any resulting revenue. And there have been a number of reports from Baghdad that Kurds and Shi'ites understand this formulation to mean regional governments would keep the earnings from wells built in the future."

The problem with the Iraqi Constitution is that it *doesn't* guarantee fair distribution of Iraqi oil revenues.

Posted by: AJB | Sep 30, 2005 3:59:22 PM

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