- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Marathon talks in Baghdadthat ended in the early hours of Monday will go down in history for the creation of a consensus-built road map that can lead the country toward a modern democratic state.

The Fundamental Law passed by the Governing Council lays out a new vision for the Iraqi state by acknowledging individual rights without undermining the special character of various ethnic and religious groups — Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans; Shia, Sunnis, Christians and others.

The outcome surprised those who were expecting — or even hoping for — failure.

Iraqis outside the process say that the document is a brave one. The ethnically and religiously diverse nature of the country forced the various negotiating parties to settle for less than what each group hoped for but, significantly, created a workable framework through which each feels recognized and respected.

Unlike the past, the new state is not to be built on a foundation that pits one group against the other. “It was on everyone’s terms,” says one Governing Council member.

This fundamental law is seen by many as a turning point in the history of the country, a move that will herald a new culture of politics. The politics of the past were extremist — all or nothing. But this weekend witnessed a remarkable spirit of compromise.

The compromises made by all groups will shape the thinking of the Iraqi people because the outcome illustrates that in politics, nothing is absolute. The successful American-supervised negotiations struck the death knell for the “all or nothing” principles that have dominated Iraqi politics for decades.

The agreement on the transitional constitution creates fertile common ground upon which a permanent constitution can be hammered out in the next years.

A central element of the document is a bill of rights that cannot be repealed by any future legislation. The individual rights enshrined provide the Iraqi people important assurances that, unlike the bloody past, their human rights will not be undermined by the political and economic interests of one group at the expense of others.

Another noteworthy principle in the document is the right to form federal regions from as many as three existing governorates. This is particularly important for the Kurds and Shia who were historically marginalized by a powerful, highly centralized and often racist and sectarian government.

Federalism will empower the people. It acknowledges their ethnic and religious differences and turns these differences into strengths by trusting each group to run their own affairs while maintaining larger political and economic ties with Baghdad.

This point is particularly significant for the Kurds as it will allow them to maintain autonomous control of their current region. In addition, they will no longer be accused by the average non-Kurdish Iraqi of being separatists. Other Iraqis will be able to have similar control over their own affairs and yet stay within the Iraqi state.

The recognition of Islam as “a source” of future legislation was a hotly debated issue, but included in the final draft. Some consider this a double-edged sword. The wording could lead to a theocracy. But it may also moderate hard-line Islamist groups when it comes to writing future law. Although the document provides that “no legislation shall be passed if it contradicts Islamic tenets,” it also clearly states that laws made should conform to the principles of democracy and the freedoms enshrined in the Fundamental Law.

This clause gives moderate Islamists ammunition with which they can fight more extremist elements by showing that they too uphold Islamic values.

Despite all the positive elements in the document and the way in which it was developed, a lingering fear remains in the mind of many Iraqis. Some fear the Fundamental Law could be repealed by those who come to power in forthcoming elections, which the document states will be held no later than December 2004.

International guarantees that this document will remain in force until a permanent constitution is written will assuage those fears.

Diverse ethnic and religions groups are the building blocks of today’s Iraq. Consensus will continue to cement the blocks until a permanent constitution is ratified by the Iraqi people.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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