- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

As the deadline for the handover of Iraqi sovereignty approaches, a vibrant debate sweeps through the Iraqi Governing Council and the Iraqi public about the drafting of the fundamental law.

The fundamental law — often referred to as a provisional constitution — will actually be the principles that will guide the country from the end of occupation until general elections are held and a constitution drafted.

This document-in-progress, due to go into effect July 1, is crucial as it will lay the foundation of the new Iraqi state and serve as a road map toward sustainable stability in the country.

The fundamental law for the transitional period is expected to include a bill of rights, the composition and powers of the new national government, and the federal structure of the country.

In the shattered political environment left by Saddam Hussein, all elements of Iraqi society want to secure something for themselves from the new arrangement. At this stage in the game, all groups — Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arabs — are making maximal demands on the fundamental law, anticipating they will fall short.

Most will be willing to settle for less. But only if there is international oversight of its implementation, coupled with U.S. military muscle to guarantee the less-than-perfect transitional arrangement they settle for. They need guarantees there will be no return to the exclusion, genocide and tyranny that they have suffered from in the past.

The Kurds want to expand the boundaries of the area that has been under their control for the past 12 years to include those parts of historic Kurdistan that were ethnically cleansed and systematically Arabized with settlers over the past 30 years. This area would form a federal Kurdistan region.

In addition, they seek fair and equitable settlement of property disputes created by Ba’athist ethnic cleansing.

This is perhaps the most contentious issue under debate and the fundamental law might not be able to address it in full. But Kurds would settle for current borders and unsettled claims if there were international guarantees that the process will get underway in due course.

The Arab population, mostly divided along sectarian lines, fears control of one sectarian group over the other. The Shia are adamant that there be national elections soon, while the Sunnis want increased representation now.

The Shia pin their hopes on elections to insure they receive the majority role that reflects their population. The United Nations has said, justifiably, that elections are impossible now.

The Shia could be convinced to wait for full national elections if they were given international guarantees that elections will definitely take place in the near future and that transitional assembly reflects their proportion.

The Sunni fear marginalization and hence call for increased representation now. They could also be convinced to accept a less-than-desirable share in the transitional government if they were assured that the future elected national assembly will reflect their proportion.

The majority — silenced by mullahs and warlords — are liberal, secular and democratically minded. But they have as yet no political party base to mobilize for elections. They may well be unhappy with their representation in the transitional government or even in the first elected government, but they can be appeased by international guarantees that in four years time, there will be another election. This would allow them time to organize, mobilize and to make known their liberal platform.

While the fundamental law and the transitional government it creates might not satisfy everyone, most will be satisfiedknowingthatan international umbrella will at least protect them from the emergence of another ethnic or religious thug from coming to power in a coup d’etat.

In addition, all groups fear that after the November U.S. presidential elections, interest in Iraq might fade. International involvement will provide assurances for the Iraqi people that the world community will not leave them kicking in the wind.

The Iraqi people feel that the international community has let them down several times in the past, last spring in particular. Many Iraqis still wonder why more countries did not support the demise of such a ruthlessly oppressive regime.

Now is the time for the world community to prove that they truly have the best interest of the people of Iraq at heart.

Whatever the final version of the fundamental law, it needs to become internationally legitimized by the U.N. Security Council and backed by the military might of the U.S.-led coalition.

Current negotiations are tough. Finding common ground among the various people and interests in Iraq will not be achieved overnight. But making the fundamental law an international document is the one thing that can placate all of them. It will additionally allow Iraqis time to work together and prepare for the new round of negotiations that will be launched with the start of the constitutional drafting process.

The international community can not abandon the Iraqi people now. It supported the former regime for decades as it raged against its own people. The least the world community can do now is stand by the Iraqi people as they struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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