- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

A key Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader said yesterday that minority and religious rights would be respected under Iraq’s new constitution, and that those who do not prefer Islamic Shariah law would be given the option to be tried in secular civil courts.

“Each individual would have the right to choose which system to be judged by,” said Shi’ite cleric Amar al-Hakim, whose remarks at a round-table discussion sponsored by the rights group Freedom House were translated from Arabic.

In divorce cases, Mr. Hakim declined to comment on what would happen if the husband preferred the Islamic court while the wife wanted the case heard in a secular court.

Sheik al-Hakim is the son of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), one of Iraq’s two dominant Shi’ite-based political parties.

SCIRI, which developed strong ties with fellow Shi’ites in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era and has a strong following in Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated south, is playing a critical role in the negotiations.

Sheik al-Hakim would not speculate on whether Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, would weigh in on the constitution, but expects the influential cleric to exercise the same right as other Iraqis to make his views known after the draft is completed.

Bush administration officials have pressed Iraqi lawmakers to meet the Monday deadline in large part to counter the power of a deadly insurgency determined to wreck the fragile U.S.-backed government.

Reuters news service reported that gunmen opened fire with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on a mosque in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, where the governor of the province was meeting with senior Sunni Muslim clerics. Several people were wounded, witnesses said.

Four American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, raising the U.S. death toll to more than 1,850 since the war in Iraq began.

A judge was killed in southern Baghdad.

Issues of federalism, oil revenues and the role of Islam have bedeviled Iraqi politicians trying to complete the constitution.

Drafters also must balance the demands of the majority Shi’ites, Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the north, and the Sunni Muslim population, which has provided the bulk of resistance to the new government and to U.S. and coalition forces.

Sheik al-Hakim said the constitution will not detail how a future Iraqi government will operate, but that it was natural that the constitution recognize Islam’s “leading role” in a country that is 95 percent Muslim.

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