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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.
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.