Iraq’s Governing Council signed a landmark interim constitution Monday after resolving a political impasse sparked by objections from the country’s top Shiite cleric. The signing was a key step in U.S. plans to hand over power to the Iraqis by July 1.
In a sign of future disputes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a religious decree just hours after the signing that said he still objected to the charter. He maintained that the constitution would be illegitimate until approved by an elected body.
“Any law prepared for the transitional period will not gain legitimacy except after it is endorsed by an elected national assembly,” al-Sistani said in the fatwa, released on his Web site.
The news here isn’t that Iraq has a constitution — although it is a big deal. The news also isn’t that al-Sistani has problems with it. The big story is, al-Sistani, a Shia cleric, says the document won’t be legitimate until ratified by democratic means.
There’s a good reason, however, why I said that Iraq’s new constitution isn’t the big story: There’s a world of difference between having a constitution, and living by it. The constitution Mexico adopted after independence from Spain was almost word-for-word a Spanish translation of the US constitution.
But because they didn’t have any practice with civil society, simply having a constitution didn’t really change much. They traded in their Spanish masters for homegrown ones, and that was about it.
The same could very well prove true in Iraq. Time will tell.