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ONE NATION UNDER GOD

International | IRAQ: Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials race a Feb. 28 deadline to draft a constitution by the people for the people-but it won't be easy

Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

Nearly one year after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the founding fathers for a new Iraq are set to publish their first blueprint for constitutional government. One week before a Feb. 28 deadline, negotiators were deadlocked over key points of the "fundamental law" but resolved to keep their pledge.

The outstanding points cover the conduct of future elections, religious freedom, Kurdish autonomy, and control over oilfields. No matter how many late-night kabobs and marathon sessions council members endure, none of the contentious issues is likely to be settled easily.

"It is fair to say that negotiations are complex, but at the same time we are confident we will meet the deadline we have set," said Qubad Talabani, spokesman for Iraqi Governing Council member Jalal Talabani.

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As rotating president of the council, Mr. Talabani signed with U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer the agreement of last Nov. 15 that set a timetable for new government and guarantees "certain basic rights" during the transition period-including freedom of speech, press, and religion-which will govern Iraq's affairs until a permanent government takes effect by the end of next year.

In the final days of negotiation, council members were divided between two drafts: a proposal offered by Iraqi Independent Democrats leader Adnan Pachachi and one by Kurdish members largely representing factions outlawed under Saddam Hussein. The two drafts differ over how to define religious freedom, how public revenues are divided between central and provincial governments, and how much control the central government will have over the oil industry.

On the important question of religious freedom, the agreement stipulates that the constitution "will also respect the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people, while providing guarantees of religious freedom for all Iraqis." While those words may sound sweet to religious-freedom advocates, they have proved highly debatable. Shiite and Sunni members of the council are under pressure from the radical wings of their constituencies to draft a constitution that will impose Islam as the state religion and Shariah, the Islamic code of conduct, as the basis for civil law.

Leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani has prodded thousands of Muslims into the streets not only to protest the existing plan for elections but also to contest constitutional language diluting the clerics' power over state affairs. Mr. Bremer, having said he might allow for a system containing Shariah, suggested on Feb. 16 that he will veto a draft constitution with Shariah as its basis. "Our position is clear," he told an audience of Iraqi women at a human-rights gathering in Shiite-dominated Karbala. "It can't be law until I sign it." He said he would allow mention of Shariah as "a source of inspiration for the law."

His position has support among Muslims on the council. "Islam will not be the only source for law," said Mr. Talabani's spokesman, who is also his son. "We are hoping to separate as much as we can religion and the state." Mr. Talabani said he believes there is a developing "consensus among the governing council that this is the direction we must go."

In Washington, human-rights activists say that sort of consensus will be meaningless without stronger language to protect individual rights.

Kuwait's constitution, for example, guarantees rights for women, yet women cannot vote because leading clerics have issued fatwas, or religious decrees, preventing it. "The antidote for Shariah is an individual right of religious freedom," said Nina Shea, director of the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Ms. Shea and others met with members of the National Security Council leading up to the deadline to press for individual-rights language.

Members of Congress increased lobbying efforts, too. A Feb. 10 letter from Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice complained that a clause protecting "other religions" offers only communal safety: "This provision allows an interpretation reflecting the all-too-common, stunted concept of religion in which members of congregations may attend worship services but could be arrested for carrying a Bible, wearing a cross, or operating a religious school or hospital."

The potential for religious conflict was underscored on Feb. 14, when four Baptist pastors from the United States traveling south of Baghdad came under attack. Insurgents, riding in a car behind the Americans, sprayed their vehicle with bullets, killing John Kelley, 48, a Baptist pastor from Rhode Island, and wounding three other American clergymen.

An Iraqi Baptist pastor in Baghdad told WORLD the group was traveling on what is locally called the "Babylon Road," having ordained a local pastor to start a new church south of the capital. They had been in Iraq for nearly two weeks. Constitutional law in Iraq is a first step to eliminating that sort of violence. How the constitution is worded, however, will determine whether the rule of law applies when Christians and other minorities are attacked.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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