Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2017

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Where I Stand — Mike O’Callaghan: Can’t rush constitution

Mike O'Callaghan is the Las Vegas Sun executive editor.

LAST MONTH Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the Kurds in northern Iraq. He went to Halabja where thousands were killed with poison gas by Saddam Hussein's military in 1988. It was an emotional Powell who told a cheering crowd of Kurds, "I can't tell you that choking mothers died holding choking babies. You know that. I can't say that the world should have acted sooner. You know that. What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again."

Powell's words also pleased many of us who had publicized the butchering of the Kurds. In 1992 when the U.S. State Department tried to keep Americans from helping the Kurds hold an election, I offered my expertise. Four of us, Brian Brown, Richard Eisendorf, James Prince and I volunteered to oversee the election for the National Endowment on Democracy and the Iraq Foundation.

Our lengthy report on the election contained the following paragraph: "The world is continuing to uncover evidence of genocide, mass forced relocation, and political and physical repression perpetrated against the Kurds by the Iraqi army. Some delegation members visited newly discovered mass graves of some of the estimated 20,000 Kurds that were killed in the two years prior to the Gulf War. We viewed torture chambers and visited destroyed villages whose majority of male populations had been abducted by Iraqi forces 12 years ago. We saw razed villages and hospitals with depleted stocks of medicine full of amputees who had lost their limbs to land mines. We saw the strength and determination of the Kurdish people."

It is rewarding to have a man of Powell's stature again remind the world and our own policymakers of the suffering our friends the Kurds have suffered. We shouldn't forget that Saddam didn't personally go to kill the Kurds. His army and other Iraqis did the bloody deeds. How many of them are now taking part in forming a new government for Iraq, we don't know.

Powell wants a constitution produced in the next six months so the Iraqis can govern themselves. The sooner a new government can be formed the earlier our troops can come home. The task of writing a constitution for a country that is so badly torn apart by ethnic, cultural, economic and religious differences won't be accomplished in six months. A document written and acceptable to the governed will take at least a couple of years if it's going to last and provide a government for future generations.

Unlike America, Iraq has been put together by foreigners drawing lines on maps and held together by kings, dictators and tribal leaders. Democracy and republic are only words to a people who have no concept of their meaning. Iraq isn't blessed with writers and speakers who think like Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among others. Because of these thinkers, who had helped create both a revolution and new government, there were healthy conflicts which resulted in a practical living constitution.

Americans first learned that their Articles of Confederation weren't adequate for the new nation. It didn't take long for the thinkers to figure out that without an independent judiciary or an executive with power to raise revenue their new nation wouldn't survive. Even the weak Articles of Confederation took almost four years for all 13 states to ratify. This was a learning experience that provided a good basis for the approval of a constitution in 1787.

The Iraqi people have to be brought together as soon as possible in town hall meetings to learn the different possibilities available for a new and democratic form of government. Is it possible for them to have a strong central government with divisions or states that meet the acceptance of areas dominated by Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen? What will be the division of taxes and oil money between the central government and the local governments?

These are but a few of the problems that are difficult to draw the attention of people when acts of terrorism and survival are part of their daily lives. Nevertheless, the education process must start now and the leaders must understand that education also flows upward from the students. Only a constitution accepted by the people will provide the kind of democracy they deserve. This won't be accomplished in six months. How about two or three years?