- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

The new Iraqi constitution to be presented later this month will not resolve many of the most difficult questions that threaten to split the nation along ethnic and sectarian lines, key participants in the process say.

Rather, the parties expect to meet an Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a basic law by deferring tough decisions on the details of the role of Islam, women’s rights, oil-revenue sharing and federalism until after a new legislature is elected in December.

Not everyone is happy with that decision, taken in the face of strong U.S. pressure to meet the Aug. 15 deadline and keep Iraq’s progress toward a permanent government on track. The last possible moment for seeking an extension was midnight Monday.

The Kurds, in particular, strongly oppose any delay in a final decision on the future of the northern city of Kirkuk, their role in the future of Iraq and ownership of Iraq’s natural resources.

They have proposed that the constitutional drafting committee expand the provincial borders of Kurdistan and are vehemently opposed to a Sunni proposal that would recognize Iraq as an Arab nation. Kurds are not ethnically Arab.

The Sunnis, meanwhile, worry that excessive decentralization will take power from the Sunni center of the country, while Shi’ites, backed by some Sunnis on the committee, are pushing for a greater role for Islam in the nation’s laws.

Women’s groups are worried that their rights will be shoved aside in the rush to meet the deadline.

“Many Iraqi women are outraged by the idea that [the current draft of the] constitution refers to Islamic Shariah [law] as the primary legal source, especially as it relates to the personal-status law,” said Manal Omar, regional representative of Women for Women International.

Under Shariah law, women inherit half of what men inherit, and may lose their equal rights in divorces.

“Many women are not against Islamic law in the constitution, but feel that safeguards need to be put in place with regard to interpretations and applications of an overarching Islamic Shariah,” Miss Omar said in a telephone interview from Jordan.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said after meeting with women’s groups yesterday that equality for women “is a fundamental requirement for Iraq’s progress.”

But an Iraqi official in contact with those drafting the constitution said the Shi’ites — who have a majority in the interim legislature — were unlikely to agree to any rights for women that were not acceptable under Shariah law.

“We have to respect the realities of Iraq,” he said, adding that women “have to be patient and accept the reality. … We will not put articles in against women, [but] we can just not topple this one overnight.”

Once the new constitution is completed, Iraqis will have two months to debate its terms before approving or rejecting it in a national referendum.

If it is approved, a second national election will take place on Dec. 15, and a permanent government will be seated by Dec. 31. If voters reject the constitution, the committee will go back to the drawing board.

The hope in Washington is that if everything goes on schedule, support for the Sunni-led insurgency will dissipate and U.S. troops will be able to begin coming home early next year.

Neil Kritz of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is advising the Iraqi parties in the drafting process, said that it is important to keep the political momentum going, even if many of the toughest decisions are deferred.

“In that sense, it would almost be an interim constitution. You can decrease support for the insurgency by drawing others into the political process, and [you] can set up a new time line to review it within two years,” said Mr. Kritz.

A U.S. source close to the drafting committee said that U.S. political considerations rather than Iraqi political needs appear to be driving the push to finish quickly.

“The U.S. is putting on pressure because it is viewed as tied to troop withdrawals,” he said.

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