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Iraq: Draft Constitution Due Today, But Will It Be Ready?

By Charles Recknagel

Iraq's constitutional committee faces a deadline today for completing the draft of the country's first post-Saddam charter and submitting it to the National Assembly for approval. But while U.S. and Iraqi officials are expressing optimism that the document will be ready on time, there is no certainty that remaining disputes will not force a delay.

Prague, 15 August 2005 (RFE/RL) – According to the calendar, Iraq’s draft constitution is to be ready today and presented to the National Assembly.

And, indeed, the National Assembly is due to meet at 6 p.m. local time to receive and consider the draft.

But will the draft document be ready on time, or will remaining disputes over key questions delay it?

The past days have seen U.S. and Iraqi officials, including U.S. President George W. Bush, putting continual pressure on the drafting committee to resolve the problems in time.

“We have made it clear that we believe that a constitution can be and should be agreed upon by 15 August," Bush said on 11 August. "And so I’m operating on the assumption that it will be agreed upon by 15 August. Obviously, there’s some difficult issues, federalism being one, [another being the] role of religion.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari told reporters on 14 August that he is “optimistic."

And al-Ja'fari’s spokesman, Laith Kubba, was even more upbeat. He said the same day that from what he hears, "there is an agreement and the document will be submitted on time.”

But the wrangling on the Constitutional Drafting Committee has been fierce, and -- if there is an agreement -- it has yet to be officially announced.

One of the toughest disputes is over how much Islamic law should be a source for Iraq’s legal code.

Secular groups object to demands by religious parties that Islam be the sole source for Iraq’s laws. They say the sources should also include other models, such as Western systems, to guarantee individual and women’s rights.

The dispute over the sources of the legal code has spilled out of the meetings of the Constitutional Drafting Committee and into the streets.

Baghdad shop owner Hussein Abdul Amir told Reuters he wants most of the principles in the constitution to be derived from the Koran.

"I think that no one will accept this constitution if it contradicts the traditions of the society and the Islamic religion, especially since the majority of the people are Muslims," Amir said. "It is supposed that most, or the majority, of the principles of the constitution be derived from the Koran."

Another issue is over how much autonomy the Kurdish-administered north should have as part of a federal Iraq.

And, there is a tough last-minute dispute over whether the country’s Arab Shi’a should also have powers of self-rule.

That argument has seen Arab Sunnis rejecting demands from the largest Shi’a religious party to create a single autonomous state comprising Shi’a-majority areas in Iraq’s south and center.

The Arab Sunnis fear this could lead to autonomous authorities in both the north and south of Iraq hoarding oil revenues and leaving their own central region -- which has no oil fields -- impoverished.

The federalism dispute, too, is being closely followed by the Iraqi public.

"We do not want the kind of federalism that divides the country," Baghdad resident Abu Ahmed told Reuters. "Iraq should be united. I support the kind of federalism that ensures the unity of our country. Federalism on the level of provinces is also possible."

The question now is whether the drafting committee -- in order to meet today’s deadline -- will try to fully resolve the Islam and federalism disputes or rush through a document that postpones such decisions for a later date.

Several Shi’a leaders in recent hours have threatened such a postponement if they cannot reach a consensus with the Sunni Arabs. They would then hope to build a majority for approving the document in the National Assembly, where Shi’a parties are strongly represented.

That would clear the way for proceeding toward the next big milestones in Iraq’s political transition this year: a national referendum on the constitution in October and a general election for a first constitutional government in December.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials have stressed that a vaguely worded or only partially supported constitution could fail to pass in the national referendum. And that could derail the democracy-building process.

If the committee misses today’s deadline, things could be equally problematic.

Under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law passed by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council a year ago, failure to meet the deadline mandates the dissolution of the current interim government, unless the law is amended.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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