Cover Story

TOO LEGIT TO QUIT

Critics contend the United States is abandoning rule-of-law gains made in the interim Iraqi constitution in favor of a UN-brokered solution that may satisfy a political timetable-but not the Iraqi people. With "thugs waiting in the wings," now is no time to cut and run

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

It was 1 a.m. in Baghdad, lights across the city were out, and a chill lengthened along with the hour at headquarters for the Iraqi Governing Council. Ahmad Chalabi took the floor to remind weary colleagues, "We are a nonelected body writing a law to bind an elected body at a time when we are under occupation." Despite the difficulty of the task, he now recalls saying, "Do not forget the significance of this situation ... if this law prevails, no Iraqi will be denied his citizenship or rights, even if he is a Jew."

Hyperbole is no stranger to Mr. Chalabi, but in this case the Shiite leader of the Iraqi National Congress underscored a profound moment last February for the Arab world: If Iraq's 25 ethnically and religiously divided council members could agree on a transitional law, now known as TAL, to guide the country toward constitutional government, even the region's most hated minority could win equal rights in the heart of the Muslim world.

To nearly everyone's astonishment, the Iraqis did pass a remarkable interim constitution. The tragedy is that recent actions of the occupying powers-that is, the United States-threaten to undo much of the accomplishment, and just when Iraqis need it.

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In approving a new interim government this month, U.S. officials downplayed the law in favor of a brokered arrangement with help from the United Nations and its Algerian envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. To longstanding U.S. allies in Iraq, that looks like politics from the old Middle East. If Iraqis worry that the newly appointed interim government lacks legitimacy, they worry not that it's too closely linked to the Bush administration but too far removed from the president's goal of constitutional government in Iraq.

"The TAL is key to this effort," said Qubad Talabani, spokesman for governing council member Jalal Talabani. "It's of concern that it's not mentioned at all in the [UN] resolution" currently under Security Council consideration. That resolution is touted as the means to guide Iraq's movement toward January 2005 elections, rather than the TAL. Mr. Talabani also noted that President Bush did not allude to the TAL in a May 25 speech laying out a U.S. roadmap to Iraqi sovereignty. "These are glaring omissions," Mr. Talabani told WORLD.

"A lot of people consider this document the most important legacy of U.S. political occupation in rebuilding Iraq, for both Iraqis and the Americans," said Nina Shea, director of the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. "Not to affirm it at this critical juncture is mind-blowing."

Baghdad journalist Hiwa Osman said a draft UN resolution that fails to incorporate the TAL has a "fatal flaw." In its absence, he said any UN resolution "will leave the Iraqi individual unprotected, the new government adrift in a sea of political sharks, and the international community's credibility questioned."

In 39 articles hammered out over three months, the TAL is unlike anything on the books in the Arab world. It establishes a system of government in Iraq that is "republican, federal, democratic, and pluralistic," It also:

guarantees equal rights to all Iraqi citizens, including non-Arabs defrocked by Saddam Hussein;

restores citizenship to those stripped of it under the former regime;

guarantees "full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice";

protects free speech, freedom to join unions and political parties, freedom to travel, to bear arms, and to own private property;

subjects armed forces to civilian control.

With those guarantees in place, many Iraqis believe the country should already have moved quickly toward national elections that will allow political leadership-long suppressed under Saddam-finally to emerge and compete for popular support. Delaying that process, first with the U.S.-picked Governing Council and now the UN-brokered interim government, leaves a street-level vacuum presently being filled by Islamic clerics as extreme as they are charismatic.

In the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis have concluded that the principle guiding their future is election-year politics. America, they are learning, has the muscle for regime change but not the stomach. Kerry supporters, they believe, would like nothing better than to see Iraq crumble into anarchy. Bush operatives want out of Iraq quickly and cleanly, requiring them to appease European allies with UN intervention. Mr. Brahimi and UN operatives, they say, are bypassing the TAL as a way to appease the Arab world dictators and Iraq's Islamic clerics.

Iraqis know their Middle East history better than do Americans. When Mr. Brahimi was an Arab League diplomat during talks to end civil war in Lebanon, he arranged to consolidate Syria's military occupation of the Bekaa Valley, giving the Baath regime in Damascus more than a decade to co-opt legitimate democracy in Beirut.

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