- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The debate, delay and, later, objections over Iraq’s interim constitution by Shia leaders highlight the vital need for a federal structure in the country.

If a defined federal structure were in place before the start of the drafting of the permanent constitution, sometime in 2005, it would guarantee a just and equitable outcome for all. The creation of a decentralized structure would bar one authority, person or interest from setting the rules for all of Iraq’s diverse populations during the upcoming transitional period.

Iraq is still suffering from the hangover of 80 years of a highly centralized governmental system. Although the 25 men and women of the Iraqi Governing Council sat at one table and hammered out the agreement to represent the country’s diverse religious and ethnic make-up, they had great difficulty in reaching a one-document-fits-all solution.

This document, signed Monday, is designed to take the country through the transitional periodtowardapermanent workable system for all religions, all ethnic groups and all their historical and geographical diversity. To reach the delicate agreement, all sides had to exercise a great deal of flexibility and compromise.

Statements of “reservation” by members of the Council and religious leaders outside the council that criticized the interim constitution before the signatures dried on the document could usher in dangerous intended or unintended consequences.

The concerns raised were met with dismay by many in Iraq who support the spirit of the document, even if not every letter of it. Each community accepts that the law is not all of what it had hoped for; many have reservations.

But inflammatory statements and reservations, like the ones made by 12 Shia Council members, will egg on others, who may be equally dissatisfied but so far silent to convey their criticisms. In the end, this will only undermine the one consensus-based document since the country’s inception.

Other Shia religious leaders went to the extent of pointing out specifically that the clause in the transitional law relating to federalism is tantamount to a “time bomb” that could cause civil war in Iraq.

In fact, the clause may be what saves the country. There are growing fears that more statements of this nature may inflame ethnic and sectarian tension.

At present, Iraqis of all stripes, by and large, respect the religious figures of the Shia community. But continued interference with the political process in a way that might appear to be imposing the will of a one group on all others, might push non-Shia Iraqis to start openly criticizing these religious figures. This could, in turn, provoke a counter reaction from the Shia that may lead to civil strife.

The complaints raised do not relate to religious topics, such as the hotly debated issue in the Council of the role of Islam in formulating legislation. The Shia settled for Islam as “a source” of legislation rather than “the source” of legislation.

The post-signing reservations, rather, center on the clause that allows any three governorates to veto a permanent constitution.

Public criticisms of this clause send a message to the outnumbered communities of the country that the objections of the Shia majority are not out of religious principles but rather out of a desire for political domination.

An important point to note here is that the Kurds in the north, who have been independent of Baghdad for over a decade, were less worried by these statements, simply because they are running their own affairs and feel safe and secure in their own functioning governmental system.

In the interim constitution, there is a specific clause that provides governorates the right to form regions like that of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and start running their own affairs.

If other governorates unite to form federal units, the influence of religious figures will be limited to areas populated by their supporters. Once new federal units are up and running, negotiations over a permanent constitution will be much easier. The various population groups will be negotiating from a position of strength, and religious leaders will not be seen then as imposing their agendas on populations who do not necessarily follow their line.

Democracy is not about the domination of the majority over all others. It is all about guaranteeing the rights and the status of the minorities.

A federal system in Iraq would provide for the rights of minorities. Then, and only then, will Iraq stand a chance of moving toward a united, peaceful and stable country.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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