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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Citizens keen to learn more about interim constitution

BAGHDAD, 17 March 2004 (IRIN) - It's lunch hour in the al-Alwei cafe in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The place is bustling with hungry customers and the mostly male crowd is talking about the pleasant weather, rising prices and the new constitution signed on 8 March.

Suddenly, all talk stops as a cafe worker turns up the volume of the television sitting on top of a refrigerator in the corner. Mohammed Bahr al-Oloum, son of the head of the Iraq Governing Council (IGC), is talking about what the new constitution will mean to the man in the street.

The son of the conservative Shi'ite leader said all of Iraq's minority groups would have equal rights under the law. He said various political factions were willing to compromise to make the new Iraq better than it had been in the past. He said Iraqis are cooperating to end the occupation of US-led forces on 30 June. That's the date US administrator Paul Bremer has said sovereignty will be returned to Iraqis.

Ali Mehdi, 38, isn't buying all of the political rhetoric. Writing a new constitution is a good first step, Mehdi told IRIN, but people like him just want the bombings and shootings to stop so they can get on with their lives. The recent bomb in Karbala that killed more than 100 Iraqis during a religious celebration was just the latest example of the violence currently plaguing ordinary people and US-led troops, Mehdi said.

"We hope this law can be applied to people, not just talked about in politicians' speeches," Mehdi said as his colleagues stopped watching television to gather around him. "We were happy when we heard the council signed the new constitution, but we just want to live normal lives."

One of the biggest problems with the new constitution is its ambiguity about how the new government will work, said Sitaar Juad. The constitution, which has been published on the Internet in Arabic and English, calls for general elections to be held before 31 December 2005. It also calls for a federal system with strong regional government.

It's the federalism issue that has Juad worried. How can a central government control northern Iraq, where a de facto Kurdish government has governed itself since 1991, Juad asked.

Even worse, there's no specific information about what will happen to Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, under a federal system, Juad said. The constitution calls for a central Iraqi army and says independent militias will be abolished. But it does not address the issue of whether militia members can join the army.

The questions of federalism and independent militias worry Rahman Aljebouri, too. As an Iraqi who grew up in the United States, the Iraqi country director for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based democracy-building group, understands well the idea of how democracy works in a strong federal government.

"It's hard to understand," Aljebouri told IRIN later in his office when told about the discussion in the cafe. "It [the constitution] says there is a federal system but also regional and provincial governance. All of these militias should go away. A lot of these things have not been answered," he added.

Back at the coffee shop, two women eating together at a counter by the window wave a copy of the constitution downloaded from the BBC Arabic web site, as they listen to the men talk. They're very happy and proud to be the first Middle Eastern country to discuss human rights, according to Suha Mohammed. But Mohammed, who's studying psychology, is also worried that even though her parents have good jobs, the salaries are low and the family seems to be slipping into poverty.

"So many people are out of work. My family works for the government, but their wages seem to buy less and less," Mohammed told IRIN.

Her friend Fatima Adnan, 28, is more hopeful about the new constitution. "God willing, this law will be put into practice and the economy will get better," she told IRIN. "Some people want to convey a picture that it's not safe here. With this new constitution, everything will only get better."

The National Democratic Institute is planning workshops around the country to explain aspects of the new constitution, Aljebouri said. Political experts will be brought in to discuss various aspects to political parties, lawyers and the people living around the country.

In the cafe, Muneer Brahim, complained that everything was moving too quickly. Television stations should spend more time helping people understand what's going on, he said. "Satellite stations dominate Iraqi TV right now, so all we watch are Egyptian movies," he told IRIN. "I want to understand so that I will know how to vote when the time comes," he added.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance


This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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