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Iraqi Parliament Faces Challenges in Drafting New Constitution

Iraqi National Assembly members appear at their session in Baghdad
Iraqs parliament is to complete the formation of the new government soon and begin deliberations on a new constitution. The task is not expected to be easy, because of a desire to include all of Iraqs ethnic and religious groups in the process.

Iraqi politicians say they have reached broad agreement on principles to guide what they call the new Iraq. But they will have to overcome some deep differences, as they draft a new constitution.

Under Saddam Hussein, Shiite Muslims, who represent 60 percent of the population, were marginalized by the government, which was dominated by the Sunni Arab group representing about 20 percent of the population. During the same period, Kurds, who make up about 25 percent of the population, fought a lengthy struggle for independence.

The head of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, Ghassan al- Attiyyah, says, before Iraqis start on a new constitution, they first should decide one basic issue.

"The basic issue is, are we Iraqis willing to live together? Or are we simply preparing ourselves to split and divide our country. This has to be debated honestly and freely," said Mr. al-Attiyyah.

In elections last January, Shiite parties won more than half of the 275 seats in parliament, while the Kurds won a fourth of the seats.

The Sunni Arabs won less than 20 seats because of a widespread boycott of the elections. They are said to form the backbone of an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives in the past two years.

The Shiites and Kurds joined to form the new government. They have sought to include the Sunnis, saying they do not want Iraq to splinter into sectarian-based states.

A chief negotiator for the Kurdish group, Fouad Masoum, says the Kurds have dropped their long-held demand for independence.

He says Kurds still aspire to independence, but political realities do not favor this. As a result, Kurdish leaders support regional autonomy in an Iraqi federation.

However, differences remain over the status of the northern city, Kirkuk, from which tens of thousands of Kurds were forcibly expelled by the Saddam regime. The Kurds want control over the area and its rich petroleum reserves. Other groups oppose this demand.

Another major issue is whether Iraq should become an Islamic state. The founder of Baghdad's Saed Idriss mosque, Sheikh Abbas al-Zubeidi, says Islamic law should be the basis for the new constitution. Sheikh Abbas said, God willing, they will implement the rule of the holy Koran, because the book orders that Islamic justice predominate. He added that minority rights should also be guaranteed.

A leader of the Shiite coalition that includes several Islamist parties, Ali al-Dabbagh, agrees that Iraqi law cannot conflict with Islam, because most Iraqis are Muslim. But he would like to see what he calls a marriage of Islam and democracy.

"We dont need a secular state. We dont need, also, a theocratic state," he explained. "I think that a liberal way of understanding Islam could add to the new Iraq. It could add to the democracy."

Many religious leaders say an Islamic state like Irans will not work in Iraq, because it would create divisions over which branch of Islam to follow, Shiite or Sunni.

Political analysts say the biggest hurdle to overcome is resistance by Sunni Arabs, who feel excluded from the political process.

A Sunni leader who supported the elections and was voted into to parliament, , notes that the new constitution will need Sunni support, to be passed in a referendum. He says that, under the transitional law, the draft constitution will be defeated if it is rejected by two-thirds of the voters in three provinces. Because Sunnis predominate in three of Iraqs 18 provinces, they could veto the new charter.

Baghdad Professor Naebil Younis represents some Sunni groups that boycotted the election, but have begun talking with parliament leaders.

"We think that the standard for everything is the public interest and the interest of the state, the homeland," said Professor Younis. "If they [politicians] are going to act in this way, there isnt going to be any problem with the others. We are ready to cooperate with everybody."

He says the new leaders must act on behalf of all Iraqis and not just a certain group or sect.

Political analyst Ghassan al-Attiyah says that, unfortunately, the real representatives of the Sunnis are not in the new government. "You should speak to those who really represent the main three Sunni provinces. And, this needs deep thinking: how to reach out to them," he said.

Professor Ghassan believes that the best course would be to postpone work on the new constitution until national reconciliation is achieved, even though that might take years. "If they [Iraqis] dont want to live with each other, whats the use of the constitution?" he asked.

Nevertheless, he says there is some hope, because the new leaders realize they must address Sunni concerns. He says Sunnis should also realize that they must compromise. because they can no longer dominate national politics.

By law, the new constitution should be completed in August and submitted to a popular referendum in October. After that, elections for a new parliament would be held, completing the transition to democracy.

However, the lawmakers can extend the process by six months, if necessary. Given the complexities of Iraqi society and the unchartered territory into which it is moving, many believe this additional time will be needed.