Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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Bumpy road to sovereignty

Pressure is mounting on the Iraqi Governing Council to put the final touches to the Iraqi interim constitution, but as Omayma Abdel-Latif reports, many issues remain unresolved

As the deadline for the ratification of the interim Iraqi constitution approaches, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) remains divided over key issues. The role Islam should play in the shaping of Iraqi legislation and the type of federalism Iraq should adopt in light of Kurdish demands for broader autonomy have proved the two most difficult hurdles facing IGC members during a week of debate.

In a surprising move, the IGC has announced Tuesday that it was suspending all talks on security agreements. The decision was viewed as yet another setback to the 15 November agreement which defines the status of US-led occupying troops in Iraq after the scheduled June power transfer. According to the agreement, security accords should be ratified by the IGC by the end of March 2004. One IGC member explained that such agreements have to be deferred until next summer when an interim national government is selected to assume sovereign powers. The London- based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that there was a near consensus among IGC members that the issue was too serious to deal with since they don't yet enjoy a popular mandate.

The decision comes at a time when pressure is mounting on IGC members to draw to a close discussion over the draft interim constitution, commonly known as the civil administration law. Heated debate continued to rage through the latter part of last week, raising doubt that the Council will be able to meet its deadline of 28 February. Yet sources of Al-Dawaa Party, one of the main Shi'a movements, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the major parts of the law have been approved and that very little work remains.

"We are aiming to meet the deadline set by the 15 November agreement next Sunday, but all the contentious issues will have to be deferred," Adnan Al-Asady, a spokesperson for Al-Dawaa Party told the Weekly in a telephone interview from Baghdad on Monday. Al-Asady who attended the discussions, pointed out that the main issues that sparked fiery debate were the role of Islam in the legislation, the Kurdish demand for broader autonomous rights, defining the official language of the country and the presidential body that will govern in the future. "The Council remains divided over those issues as there are conflicting views. While some can be resolved soon, others will have to be deferred until a sovereign government is in place," Al-Asady explained.

The Kurdish members in the Council demanded that both Kurdish and Arabic be made the two official languages of the Iraqi republic. The Kurds also insist that the Kurdish language should be the official language of education in Kurdish- dominated areas.

Al-Asady said that while the Arab members in the Council agreed that official documents should be written in both Arabic and Kurdish, they nonetheless objected to the second demand. "This is a multi-ethnic society," Al-Asady explained, "if we open the door for the Kurds to use their language in matters of culture and education, other ethnic communities will seek the same rights and this will not be in the interest of a united Iraq."

Another issue that posed a major challenge to the Council was the type of federalism Iraq should adopt in its constitution. The issue proved so complicated that many IGC members -- particularly Arabs and Turkomans -- insisted that it should be deferred until a democratically elected government is in place. The Kurdish proposal outlined three demands: the expansion of the Kurdish autonomous area to include parts of the cities of Al-Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala, to have a share of oil revenues, and that the Kurdish Parliament will uphold the right to ratify (or not, presumably) laws passed by the central government. US Civil Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, however, rebuked such demands. The London-based Asharq Al- Awsat spoke on Monday of "simmering tension" between Bremer and the Kurdish leaders who expressed disappointment with America's position vis-a-vis their demands. Al-Asady pointed out that while talks have reached a deadlock among IGC members concerning the Kurdish proposal, the Americans were exercising pressure on the Kurds to give up their demands.

It is, however, the Council's indecisiveness on whether or not Shari'a law should be the main or a main source of legislation that is proving the most difficult of obstacles on the road towards ratifying the interim constitution. As the Weekly went to press the Council was still debating the issue with two conflicting views emerging: one group (favouring Islam as the main source of legislation) is centred on the Sunni and Shi'a groups inside the Council; another (happy only to see Shari'a as a source of legislation) includes liberal and secular IGC members.

"To say that Islam should be the main source of legislation does not negate the fact that other sources will have to be used but only in a way that does not violate the Islamic codes," Hajem Al-Huseiny, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, told the Weekly. "No one can contest the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people, which upholds the rights of other religious minorities. This is a given," he said. Nonetheless, Al-Huseiny acknowledges that Iraqis should not be dragged into futile discussions about the role of Islam in the future make-up of Iraq: "our battle today is about how to maintain the integrity of Iraq against attempts to divide it, and our primary target is to establish the rule of law and set up a democratic process," he said. The Council is due to vote on this item within the next few days.

In an attempt to appease Iraq's leading religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Council has included an item in the present draft of the interim constitution that upholds the right of any future elected government to introduce amendments to items it deems undermining to Iraqi sovereignty, provided that such amendments be approved by a third of the elected legislature. This along with the move to suspend talks on security agreements were interpreted by observers as attempts made by the Council to be seen to reflect the popular demands of Iraqis, and to avoid a possible confrontation with the religious establishment which have repeatedly stressed that any important law should be ratified by a democratically elected body.

The crisis over reaching an agreement on the interim constitution was further compounded by the UN mission report that came out on Monday. While the report ruled out the feasibility of holding elections before the June power transfer, it nonetheless failed to mention any alternative formula to set up a government which will assume sovereign powers when occupation ends. Lakhdar Labrahimi, the UN special envoy to Iraq, is due back in Baghdad in coming weeks to hold talks with IGC members and other Iraqi political groups on possible alternatives. According to observers, the two most likely scenarios, which have been gaining ground among Iraqis, are to either expand the membership of the IGC and make it the ruling body during the interim period (until elections are held by the end of 2004), or convene a national conference which will select a transitional government to rule the country until elections are held.

"The most likely scenario is to expand the IGC but such an expansion should not be made according to ethnicity or religion but rather according to how representative these groups are of the Iraqi street," Al-Huseiny proffered.

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