Tuesday, March 2, 2004

BAGHDAD — A bill of rights with clearly defined protections for women, religious groups and ethnic minorities — a rarity in the Arab world — won unanimous backing yesterday from the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council as part of a temporary constitution to take effect when the U.S.-led rule formally ends June 30.

Marathon talks with the U.S.-picked council and American officials, led by chief administrator L. Paul Bremer, reached a final consensus on the constitution at 4:20 a.m.

“We got it,” Mr. Bremer said yesterday, paraphrasing his statement, “We got him,” when announcing in December that Saddam Hussein had been caught.

Members of the council, who are to sign the document at a ceremony tomorrow, called it a turning point in Iraq’s history and perhaps in the entire Middle East.

“We won the battle against dictatorship, and today, we took the first step on the path of freedom and democracy,” said Younadem Kana, who was chosen to represent Iraq’s 1 million-member Christian community and was the only non-Muslim member of the council.

“This is the birth of a new Iraq,” said council member Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shi’ite Muslim physician, author and human rights activist.

The document, known as the “fundamental law,” is to serve as an interim constitution until an elected legislature is in place and able to write a permanent one.

It includes:

• Recognition of Islam as “a source” — instead of “the source” of Iraqi law, implying but not explicitly saying other sources exist.

• A call for a legislature with at least 25 percent women, not with direct quotas, but by requiring undefined future legislation that would make the 25 percent goal a tough target to miss.

• Permission for the Kurds to maintain their militia, a force of about 50,000 that battled Saddam and aided U.S. forces, while bringing them under nominal control of a central government in Baghdad.

• A bill of rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly, religion and due process.

• A ban on any measure that is contrary to Islam.

Council members spoke of the end product as a remarkable compromise, especially given the post-Saddam assertiveness of Iraq’s fractious ethnic and religious groups.

“That’s our understanding of democracy: rule of the majority but guarantees for the minority as well,” said council member Mahmoud Othman, who represents the Kurdish Socialist Party.

In Washington, the Bush administration praised the measure.

“This is a major achievement, only a day late, which I think is terrific,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told CBS in Washington.

For the Bush administration, which is determined to make Iraq a platform to introduce democracy in the Middle East, the draft illustrates its vision of popular rule in a region dominated by kings and strongmen presidents.

It also marks a milestone in U.S. plans to transfer power to an undefined Iraqi government on June 30. When that happens, the convention center in downtown Baghdad will change from the U.S. military headquarters to the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.

In describing the scope of the document, the official said, “This is for a society that has been tortured and devastated for 35 years by an authoritarian system that shares the company of the Nazis, the Third Reich and the Stalin regime.

“To suddenly be presented with this incredible progress in a bill of rights that protects every individual regardless of their ethnicity — regardless of their gender, their religion, their socio-economic status — we believe the Iraqi people will embrace it,” the official said.

The bulk of the negotiating was among factions in the Iraqi council — a body appointed by the U.S.-led coalition to reflect Iraq’s ethnic and religious mix.

It included 13 Shi’ites, some who are secular and others who are from Islamist parties that had sought to make Iraq an Islamic state similar to Iran. The Shi’ites, concentrated in southern Iraq, account for up to 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people.

The other 12 seats were divided among Sunni Muslims and Kurds, with one seat held by an Assyrian Christian and another by a member of the Turkmen minority.

Throughout the negotiations, Iraqi council members said, the United States had set clear parameters, as evidenced by Washington’s objections to an Islamic state and its insistence on protecting minorities and giving power to women.

Over Arab objections, it pushed for a federal state on the lines of Canada, Brazil and India, in which provinces and regions would have considerable autonomy.

The Kurdish minority’s attempts to expand the territory it has ruled in near total autonomy since 1991 were vetoed by the United States — partly in deference to neighboring Turkey, which opposes any expansion of the Kurdish presence in the region.

But overall, Mr. Othman said he was pleased with the outcome.

“This is a compromise. It doesn’t include everything for everybody. It includes some things for everybody.

The new constitution takes effect with the transfer of power on June 30 to an interim government that is to be indirectly elected through a caucus-style system in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

The document sets a deadline for popular elections of Dec. 31 “if possible” and “no later than” Jan. 31 for voters to choose a national legislature.

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