Iraqis drafting new constitution have abundance of issues

Sunday, July 10, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi lawmakers and politicians drafting a new constitution face an abundance of tough issues: the structure of government, federalism and the role of religion -- and only five weeks to resolve them.

The task is compounded by the diversity of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, each clamoring for a charter that accommodates sometimes competing agendas. It took weeks to agree on the makeup of the committee drafting the document.

Federalism is emerging as the stickiest issue.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the drafting committee, said those involved largely agree on a federal Iraq. But some Sunni Arabs cannot accept the concept -- a deal-breaker for the Kurds who had been running their own northern region for more than a decade before the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

"They think that federalism will lead to dividing the country. We think that it will unify the country," Othman said.

Even if all authors accept the concept, difficult details must be worked out, including the boundaries and powers of regional governments, the number of federal entities and the distribution of revenue.

The Iraqi parliament has until Aug. 15 to adopt a draft constitution. If approved, it will provide the basis for a new election in December -- the last of three nationwide votes prescribed in an interim constitution.

Jawad al-Maliki, a senior Shiite lawmaker in the committee, said some Kurds want federal regions to have the right to an army and to sign agreements with neighboring countries, powers he said should only belong to the central government.

The Kurds also want their federal region to include areas "with Kurdish identity" even when they lie outside the provinces they now control, he said. "We object to such ethnic divisions," al-Maliki said.

Othman, a former member of the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, believes regional governments should have most powers apart from foreign relations, defense and planning affairs. He said a federal system should recognize the uniqueness of ethnic groups that have their own culture and language, adding the Kurds only want their region to include those Kurdish areas that are next to the ones they already run.

Some Shiites also have called for establishing federal regions in central and southern Iraq.

Salih al-Mutlak, a Sunni Arab politician, said he was alarmed by the proposed language. "This is the beginning of dividing Iraq," he said of some Kurdish demands.

Al-Mutlak is among 15 Sunni Arabs added to the 55-member drafting committee after some members of the minority threatened to scuttle the charter by opposing it in an October referendum unless they got more representation in the drafting phase.

Shiite and Kurdish politicians -- who struck an alliance after coming first and second in historic Jan. 30 polls -- know they cannot afford to alienate Sunnis Arabs, but some worry about including them.

Sunnis boycotted the parliamentary elections and are believed to make up the core of an insurgency that has killed more than 1,475 people since the Shiite-dominated interim government took office on April 28.

"They have different views. There are nationalists and Islamists and some have extremist opinions. This can create complications and problems." Othman said. "But we think that their presence is necessary."

Shiite legislator Jalal al-Deen al-Saghir said discussions with the Sunnis Arabs were "positive," but added: "There is a fear that some ... may want to scuttle the constitution from the inside."

In a recent interview with the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the constitution could be drafted on time if Sunni Arabs "don't come up with impossible conditions," such as scrapping the law banning former senior members of Saddam's Baath party from public institutions.

"This law can be amended, but cannot be canceled," Talabani said.

Parliament recently adopted a statement that forbids the activities of the "fascist" Baath party.

Articulating Iraq's relationship to the Arab and Islamic worlds also is a sensitive issue.

"They should write that the Arabs of Iraq are part of the Arab nation," said Othman. "Or even better, drop the whole sentence."

Al-Mutlak called for stronger language, saying Iraq is an Arab country -- despite a Kurdish minority estimated at about 15 percent to 20 percent.

Some secular-minded Iraqis fear the Shiites might demand a bigger role for religion. But politicians said there's general agreement on stating that Islam will be "a main source of legislation."

Also on the table is the shape of the government, with lawmakers favoring a parliamentary system.

U.S. officials have strongly urged Iraqis to honor the set deadlines, but some legislators are skeptical all the issues could be resolved on time.

Some say the thorny subjects should be left out until after the December vote. Others insist the constitution has be comprehensive and complete.

"All these issues won't be big problems if we have the will to reach an agreement," said al-Maliki, the Shiite lawmaker. "But if we want to look for differences, we'll find differences."

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