- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

DOHA, Qatar Qatari voters yesterday approved their first real constitution in a referendum moving the emirate toward greater democracy, one of several signs that the U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein is having effects far beyond Iraq's borders.
The constitution was approved in a referendum by 96.6 percent of the voters 68,987 to 2,145, with 274 invalid votes, Qatar's interior minister, Prince Hamad bin Nasser Al Thani, announced at a news conference four hours after the polls had closed.
Rapid readjustments are also being forced on other entrenched regimes in the region. In Riyadh, the Saudis learned yesterday that most U.S. forces will be shifted out of the country. In Damascus, Syrian officials this week sent peace feelers to Israel.
The prospects for greater democracy brought smiles to the faces of voters in this oil-rich but tightly controlled sheikdom just a day after Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in an interview that the war has had a "shaming effect" on the Muslim and Arab world.
Throughout the day, polling stations received a stream of men wearing white robes and red-and-white headdresses, along with women in head coverings.
"The constitution is about you and for you," said the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in an eve-of-referendum national television address. "So say your word."
The proposed constitution provides for a legislative assembly comprising 30 elected representatives and 15 nominated by the emir and his advisers.
The emir will remain as ruler and the succession will pass through his male line. But the assembly will be able to call Cabinet ministers to account and have them dismissed, and to vote down budgets.
The document also ensures freedom of speech and outlaws torture.
The winds of change also appear to be reaching Syria, which this week was reported to have sent a proposal of peace talks to Israel through U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat.
Previous peace talks over the status of the Golan Heights broke down over Israel's insistence on retaining a narrow strip of land along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
While the United States has recently accused Syria of harboring members of Saddam's ousted Iraqi regime and possessing weapons of mass destruction, there are signs that it has begun to tolerate demands for greater freedom.
About 140 politically active Syrians declared in an unprecedented manifesto that a strong internal front based on freedom for all was the only effective defense against what it called American and Israeli aggression.
The manifesto was published in Damascus by the Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies, according to a report appearing in the Lebanese Daily Star.
The war against Iraq had proved, said the signatories, that one-party rule and repressive security services cannot protect a country's independence and dignity. The group called for the cancellation of emergency laws, the release of political prisoners and the establishment of a national unity government based on reconciliation.
"Pressures for change are starting in Syria via civil society," said Haytham Manna, a Syrian exile attending yesterday's referendum in Qatar as an observer from the Arab Commission for Human Rights.
"If reforms don't come to Syria fast, it will be a real catastrophe for the country internally and for the neighborhood."
Mr. Manna predicted that Qatar's referendum would have a "very real" effect on other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, where, he said, constitutions either did not exist or were weak and ineffective.
Saudi Arabia, viewed with deep suspicion by U.S. policy-makers since 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists were identified as Saudis, also is being forced to re-examine its basic assumptions.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced during a visit yesterday to the Prince Sultan Air Base that the United States will withdraw most of its 10,000 military personnel from the country.
The air command function will be shifted to Qatar, which hosted the Central Command headquarters for the Iraq war.
Patrick Seale in Paris contributed to this report.



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