Iraqis far apart over role of Islam

With a week left to finish Iraq's new constitution, Kurds and Shiites appear to be hardening positions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rather than huddling over constitutional drafts, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari made a pilgrimage over the weekend to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric.

"Ayatollah al-Sistani does not want to impose dictates on drafting the constitution, but according to my knowledge he hopes that Islam becomes the main source of legislation," Mr. Jaafari told reporters.

While Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders have sought compromise on issues of national identity and federalism to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for the new constitution, Jaafari's statement indicates that the majority Shiites may be hardening on one of the most contentious issues: the role of Islam in the government.

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And while Iraq's political leaders have expressed hope they would meet next week's deadline, if the prime minister has accurately portrayed the views of Sistani (the quiet power behind every major decision made since the US-occupied Iraq), it's likely to mean that the US hope of installing a secular, liberal democracy in Iraq is receding from view.

What this means for meeting the constitution deadline is unclear. While the gulf between Iraq's leaders seems as wide as ever, if the deadline is missed, under current rules set in Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the current parliament would be dissolved and the constitutional process set back to Square 1.

Working toward compromise

But the one thing the major Iraqi factions agree on is that they won't allow that to happen. Where a compromise might come from, however, is unclear.

Iraq President Jalal Talabani held constitutional talks at his home Sunday that ended without any breakthroughs. Monday, leadership meetings on the constitution were canceled because of a fierce sandstorm that swept through Baghdad, closing the airport and making the roads treacherous.

US and Iraqi officials have hinted that a sort of skeletal constitution might be agreed now, leaving hard choices on Islam and expanded territory for Kurds' until a later date.

But in a populist speech to one of two Kurdish regional parliaments over the weekend, Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, who also leads the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) signaled a hardening of his position.

"We will not accept that Iraq's identity is an Islamic one,'' he told them. "There will be no bargaining over our basic rights." He also demanded 65 percent of the revenue from the Kirkuk oil fields, Iraq's second largest, to go to the Kurdish autonomous region, something Shiite leaders say is unacceptable.

Other Kurdish lawmakers in the session demanded a provision be included that promises them a vote on independence within eight years, and warned they might simply declare independence if the constitution doesn't satisfy their demands. This position infuriates Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Arabs, and is seen as a threat by Iran, Syria and Turkey, which have restless Kurdish populations of their own.

Drafting rules require consensus among the committee to put a draft constitution up for a full vote in parliament. That leaves the minority Kurds, who fear Islamic law, in as strong a bargaining position as the majority Shiite Arabs.

"We see a secular constitution as the most important guarantee of individual rights,'' says one Kurdish leader, who asked that his name not be used. "Once too much religious language is in there, we could end up threatened with another dictator."

Though the US has waded into the debate, with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad saying there "can be no compromise" on "equal rights before the law for all Iraqis regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sect," the Shiite political parties insist a much bigger role for Islam is the answer to many of Iraq's ills.

"I don't see where the concern is - all rights are guaranteed under Islam,'' says Saad Jawad Qindeel, the head of political affairs for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two main Shiite parties. "We are willing to meet all stipulations for protecting individual rights, but Islam is a big part of the character of the Iraqi people."

Mr. Qindeel says Shiite parties are willing to compromise - but in ways that are unlikely to satisfy the secular Kurds. He says that they'd prefer that Islam be the "only source" of Iraqi legislation. But they would be willing to live with a constitution that calls Islam "a source" of legislation, if a further stipulation is added: "That no legislation be enacted that violates the basic truths of Islam."

Sistani's push for Islamic law

With Sistani apparently weighing in on the issue, the Shiite position on Islam is unlikely to shift. The reclusive cleric doesn't like meddling directly in politics, but his rare pronouncements carry vast weight with millions of Iraqi Shiites.

"If Ayatollah al-Sistani suggests that he wants Islam in the constitution, that will harden the position of those who want a religious-oriented state," says Tom Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, who has met with members of Iraq's parliament on the constitution and is closely following the drafting process.

"It's possible that the law would be innocuous and merely say that no legislation may violate Islam. The big problem is, who gets to determine that? Religious courts? Whose?" says Mr. Palmer.

The Kurds worry that any such provision could lead to clerics dictating basic issues of law, though Qindeel says this shouldn't be a problem.

In the proposal put forward by his faction, what is or is not Islamic would be determined by a panel of "judges and lawyers and religious leaders,'' Qindeel says.

To be sure, while the KDP was drawing lines in the sand, the leader of the other major Kurdish faction, the more moderate Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), hinted that Kurds might allow the final status of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that was once dominated by Kurds but was "Arabized" under a program of displacement by Saddam Hussein, to be determined after a constitution is written.

After meeting with Ambassador Khalilzad Sunday, Mr. Talabani, the PUK leader and current Iraqi president, said that as long as steps are taken in the coming months to repatriate Kurds who were forced out of Kirkuk, his faction would accept a final decision after the constitution is ratified.

An aide to Talabani said the Kurds will need to see major efforts to increase the Kurdish population of Kirkuk in the interim before an Oct. 15 national vote to ratify the constitution. If that doesn't happen, they'll still have the right to reject the constitution and begin the process again.

Next steps for Iraqi government

• Aug. 15 - Deadline for completion of Iraq's constitution. Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis are scrambling to surmount differences over federalism and the role of Islam.

• Oct. 15 - Referendum on the constitution. If two thirds reject in any three provinces, the constitution will fail. This effectively gives the Kurds a veto.

• December - National elections would be slated for mid-month if the referendum passes.

• 2006 - Possible start of an American drawdown of forces if the above steps move forward as planned, and Iraqi troops deemed ready.

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