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New Iraqi National Assembly Convenes to Draft A Constitution

The Iraqi National Assembly convenes this week for the first time since the January 30th election. Its primary task will be to draft a constitution. Daniel Serwer, vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the main challenge for the members of the National Assembly is not so much the content of the constitution as how the members resolve their differences over contentious issues such as the role of religion. Will it be done “behind closed doors” or through an “open, participatory process"? In light of the near Sunni boycott of the elections, Mr. Serwer emphasizes that it is essential to bring in Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Shi’a so that all groups will have a sense of ownership.

But Peter Khalil, a former Coalition Provisional Authority official who is now at the Brookings Institution, said he believes that whatever process is chosen there will still be some “fractious issues,” particularly the role of Islam and the struggle between “secular and religious views” of the constitution. Speaking with Carol Castiel, host of VOA News Now's Encounter program, Mr. Khalil pointed out that the issue of federalism is very important to the Iraqi Kurds. And he suggested that the difficult issue of the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk might need to be postponed for a later time.

As to insurgency, which hampers progress toward political stability, Daniel Serwer believes two countervailing factors are at work. First, the resistance force rejects outright any form of democracy for Iraq. But, at the same time, “marginal advances in legitimacy in Iraq” resulting from the recent elections weaken the insurgency. However, even though progress toward stemming the insurgency will be uneven, Mr. Sewer expects a year from now there may be a government in place that has established its ability to govern and is recognized by the vast majority of Iraqis.

Peter Khalil said the question of using former Baathists - who actually have the greatest expertise in security matters - to slow down the insurgency is a “very delicate issue.” The Shi’ite Islamist parties, for example, oppose bringing back former Baath party members. But Mr. Khalil said he thinks one needs to distinguish between Baathists who were responsible for crimes against the Iraqi people and for war crimes and those who were not. And he suggested that a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to that in South Africa, would be needed.

Daniel Serwer hopes the more positive international mood regarding President Bush’s second term will be helpful in fostering Iraq’s future stability, although he said he has seen few “concrete expressions” of the new mood to date. According to Mr. Serwer, there has not been much new assistance flowing from Western Europe into Iraq.

Peter Khalil said he agrees with Daniel Serwer that there has been an improvement in the attitude of Europeans but whether it translates into practical help is questionable. He said the Germans are providing some training assistance, but outside of Iraq, and the French have committed one officer to the training team going into Iraq. Jordan and Egypt are also providing training assistance.

On the second anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Daniel Serwer said the United States is definitely not where it thought it might be when the Iraq war began, when there was a lot of “over-optimism.” In his opinion, better pre-war planning was needed, the insurgency should have been anticipated, security forces could have been “deployed properly,” and other mistakes should have been avoided. Nevertheless, he said, progress is being made, and the United States should not abandon the process. Mr. Serwer said “what makes it worth the effort” are the Iraqi people, who are very committed and very courageous.

Peter Khalil said he too has been impressed by the courage of the Iraqis. For example, ten times as many Iraqis are joining the security forces and the government ministries as are joining the insurgency. He said he is optimistic about the Iraqi security forces that are being trained, and he expects that in the next 18 to 24 months there would be a “more realistic handover of security responsibilities” to the Iraqis.

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.