Iraqi draft divides, but is often vague

A draft constitution was presented to parliament Sunday. Iraqis will vote on it Oct. 15.

Iraq's draft constitution - finished Sunday after months of negotiation - has driven a wedge between the country's minority Sunnis and everyone else.

While the document makes it clear that Iraq will be a much more Islamic country than it was under Saddam Hussein, and that it will probably see the erosion of some women's rights and individual freedoms as a consequence, it remains vague on many key issues.

The Sunnis are afraid the text will lead to the eventual breakup of the country, and leave them clustered in a few central provinces without oil wealth or influence.

"The Americans insisted on finishing this now to satisfy their own people at our cost,'' says Hussein Shouker al-Falluji, a Sunni on the drafting committee. "If this constitution is passed it will be passed on the back of an American tank, rolling over our bodies."

But while Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish leadership downplay Sunni fears, saying the document guarantees a strong, united Iraq, the document leaves much unsettled.

Perhaps most crucially, it refers to the "federal" nature of the state on a number of different occasions, specifically refers to the right of Iraq's northern Kurds to maintain the autonomous region they carved with US assistance in the 1990s, and leaves the door open for the creation of such federal regions elsewhere.

These provisions alarmed Sunnis, and they are promising to put them the center of their campaign to discredit the charter.

Constitutional ambiguity

While there is language promising equal distribution of Iraq's oil revenue to all of its people, the draft is littered with ambiguities that point out much more depends on which powers will interpret the document in future than the draft itself.

The constitution's first page, for example, says both that no law can be passed that contradicts "the fixed principles of Islam" while also promising that no law can be passed that contradicts the "rights and basic freedoms outlined in this document."

It also promises that, "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination."

But by many interpretations, the "fixed principles of Islam" would require that men and women, for instance, not be equal before the law. Many interpretations of Islam also outlaw converting to another religion, something that would seem to contradict the draft's promise of religious freedom.

How these potential constitutional conflicts will be worked out will remain in the hands of Iraqi politicians, after elections scheduled for December.

According to the constitution, they will appoint a Supreme Judiciary Council, which will in turn appoint the Supreme Court. So whether or not the Supreme Court will be packed with Islamic scholars or secular jurists will depend substantially on the results of the next election.

The current interim government is led by two Islamist Shiite Parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party. Both have said clerics should play a role in setting Iraq's laws.

"There were some improvements over earlier drafts, but the Islamic tendency there is still very strong," says Ghassan Attiya, a secular Iraqi politician and political scientist.

"Clerics are going to be in there, since it looks like that will be decided upon by the prime minister," he says.

How Islamic is anyone's guess. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's Guardian Council, which is known to frequently violate individual rights in that country to protect its "Islamic revolution," praised Iraq's constitution in a speech delivered at prayers last Friday in Tehran, according to the state news agency. "After years of struggle ... an Islamic state has come to power," he said.

And while some secularists oppose the constitution on grounds that it's too Islamic, there are others who don't like it because it doesn't go far enough.

Mr. Falluji, for instance, says that among his objections is the decision to call Islam "a basic" source of legislation rather than "the basic" source of legislation, though no other sources of legislation are mentioned in the text.

Reaction from the street

A group playing dominoes at a coffee shop in Baghdad - Shiites except for a Kurd they like to call "Jalal Talabani" after the Kurdish interim president - say they're not too worried about the role of Islam, but are interested to see if other provisions threaten the unity of the country. "We can live with an autonomous region in the north, maybe one in the south, but there has to be a strong central government," says Fadel Abbas. "Anything that might divide the country should be rejected."

While this is also a common Sunni concern, Mr. Abbas says he doesn't think Sunni objections have been reasonable until now. "We don't want to say the Sunnis who are objecting are nursing the terrorists, but we see some links between them," he says. "If we get this finished and a permanent government in place, I know the war won't end, but it might start to get a little better."

Most of the changes made after negotiations in the past week to satisfy Sunnis were cosmetic.

The constitution now bans the "Saddamist Baath" rather than the "Baath party"; it removes a reference to the mostly Sunni people of the "western regions" of Iraq who the "terrorists and their allies sought to take hostage," because Sunni delegates found it offensive; and it appears to delay the implementation of new federal rules for Iraq, barring Kurdistan, for six months after a new government sits.

The Sunnis were not satisfied, "so this will create some problems," said Mahmoud Othman, speaking on US-sponsored Al Hurra television. "But we now hope the Sunnis will use their freedom and their rights in a peaceful way."

There also may be expanded language on the rights of women. Emphasizing the fluid and ad hoc nature of the constitutional process, the document was read to the national assembly - signaling acceptance of the charter - but copies were not available. Iraqi political scientists and observers tried to follow along on TV, and scribbled changes into the existing draft as they went. Parliament adjured Sunday without voting on the charter.

Iraq's Constitution - key articles

Article 1: Iraq's system of rule is "a democratic, federal, representative (parliamentary) republic."

Article 2: "Islam is the official religion.... No law can be passed that contradicts the fixed principles of Islam.... No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution."

Article 14: "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, opinion, or ... status."

Article 110: Oil and gas "revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the [country's] demographical distribution."

Article 151: "A proportion of no less than 25 percent of the seats in the Council of Representatives is specified for ... women."

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