Iraq's PM poised for martial law

Ten days after taking office, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is poised to give himself sweeping powers to declare martial law in parts of Iraq. Many Iraqis may welcome the new emergency law as a means to combat the insurgency and curb crime. But the Iraqi government has repeatedly postponed its unveiling, because of US concerns that it grants Mr. Allawi too much power.

According to a draft copy of the law, Iraq's interim prime minister will be able to close off entire towns and cities, impose curfews, restrict communications, and limit travel in and out.

Once signed by Iraqi leaders, the emergency law would give Allawi power to declare martial law for a set period of time, either in specific areas or nationwide. To impose martial law in a specific area, Allawi would have to get approval from his 32-member cabinet. To declare it nationwide, he also needs approval from the Iraqi president and two vice presidents.

There's no mention of the cabinet or the president having the ability rescind the law.

If martial law is declared, according to this draft, Allawi would have the power to:

• Take command over all police, intelligence, army, and other security forces in that area.

• Create special civilian courts for people accused of major crimes - anything from murder, rape, and kidnapping to destroying government property - if the criminal courts are swamped.

• Appoint civilian or military administrators in areas under martial rule.

• Release any defendant from custody, if Allawi deems it necessary for reasons of security.

• Monitor and restrict mail, telegrams, and wireless communications in affected areas.

• Freeze the assets of anybody accused of crimes that undermine national security, as well as those who are accused of providing shelter, funding, and assistance to suspected insurgents.

The Law for Defense of National Safety, states that it will only be used "in case of a grave threat to the country's internal or external security, or in case of an armed action that threatens the government's stability." The law, along with another measure offering a general amnesty for insurgents, was supposed to be announced Monday. Moments before the press conference began, Iraqi officials postponed it. But officials say they expect it to be unveiled Wednesday.

To become law, the draft will have to be signed by Allawi, Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, two vice presidents, the deputy prime minister, and all ministers. They are expected to sign it despite objections by some that it grants Allawi too much power.

In Iraq, where kidnappings, assassinations, and robbery are now routine, many Iraqis have become hungry for strict law and order. "We hope there will be martial law," says Evan Esho, a Baghdad resident. "If the police and the security hang these criminals - five of them, every day, in the street - then things will get better.

"It's not about human rights," adds Mr. Esho, who describes himself as an "almost-engineer" (he confesses he recently flunked his final exams). "We all believe in freedom. But we want the government to rule this country with an iron hand."

Fueling such sentiments are the almost daily attacks, often on Iraqis. A car bomb exploded Tuesday in a town northeast of Baghdad, killing 13 people who were attending a wake for the victims of a previous attack, the Associated Press reported.

But other Iraqis reject the idea of martial law, seeing it as an extension of the US-led occupation and a reprise of Saddam Hussein's regime. "If there is martial law, there will be arbitrary searches and arrests," says Abu Ghayeb al-Kubaisi, a chicken farmer. "They will use the excuse of fighting terrorism or national security. If someone has an enemy, he will use that as a pretext for getting this person arrested."

Mr. Kubaisi had just spent three hours at a checkpoint on Baghdad's outskirts. A resident of Ramadi - a prime candidate for martial law - he described baking in the 120-degree sun while Iraqi troops held him at the checkpoint. "I think they took them to Egypt and Israel to teach them Israeli methods," he says with disgust. (Egypt has been under emergency law since 1981).

Indeed, in many Arab countries, emergency laws, once declared, have dragged on for years or decades. "Emergency rule is often the Achilles heel of Arab constitutional systems," says Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab legal systems at George Washington University in Washington. "In many countries, emergency rule becomes a permanent state that allows rulers to bypass the constitutional order completely."

In Iraq, say some analysts, emergency law is particularly risky now. The interim government wields a shaky authority. And with the country's national assembly not yet convened, there is no legislative body to act as a check on the executive branch.

"There is no parliament yet, so there is virtually no possibility of oversight of the use of emergency powers," says Professor Brown. "Even where oversight exists in theory, the weakness of constitutional institutions generally means oversight in practice is quite weak. In Iraq, it seems to be totally absent."

The new amnesty law would offer a full pardon to insurgents, including those who have participated in attacks against US troops, provided they were not involved in "murder and rape of Iraqis." The draft says nothing about the murder of foreigners.

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