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Iraqi Interim Constitution Opens Way for Transitional Government - 2004-03-04

In Iraq the interim constitution that takes effect on Friday paves the way for a transitional government to take over control of the country and formulate its future political structure.

When the interim constitution was finally approved after marathon debates, the 25 members of Iraq's Governing Council erupted in applause. A U.S. coalition official described the mood as euphoric.

Council member Adnan Pachachi, who headed the drafting committee, underscored the significance of the document.

"It is in fact a unique day perhaps in the whole region," he said. "We have adopted unanimously an instrument, the law for the administration of the Iraqi state during the transitional period, which includes, among other things, a comprehensive bill of rights, something which is really unheard of, unprecedented in this part of the world."

The document sets out a basic bill of rights and the structure of the Transitional National Assembly, which will be responsible for drafting a new constitution and electoral law. Elections for a more permanent government are due by the end of the year or early in 2005.

For most Iraqis, the top concern is a written guarantee of their freedoms.

Businessman Husham Ahmed, 32, says his top priority is the protection of religious and minority rights. He worries that Iraqi Shi'ites who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein will try to seize control. Everyone suffered under Saddam, he says, and I want to see a fair distribution of rights to all Iraqis.

The interim constitution incorporates federalist principles and includes Islam as one, but not the only, source of future legislation. The bill of rights guarantees religious freedom and civil rights for all Iraqis.

Professor Wamidh Namdhi of Baghdad University says fears of Shi'ite domination are exaggerated.

"There is an overwhelming silent majority among Shi'a and Sunni who are not religiously inclined, who are secular people," he said. "Those include the Baathists, Communists, liberals, democratic people who do respect Islam but who are not Islamists."

While few have expressed reservations about the interim constitution itself, many Iraqis remain skeptical about its authors - members of the Governing Council who, in many cases, returned from exile after the U.S. war ousted Saddam Hussein from power.

Businessman Mohammed Ismail Sherif, 28, says the constitutional process now is being controlled by people who did not suffer under Saddam's rule. He says only those who suffered have the right to take control of this process.

Council member Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician, acknowledges the distrust but says the next phase of the transition will have Iraqis in control of the government.

He says the council members are already starting to discuss the method for choosing the transitional legislature that will take power from the U.S.-led coalition at the end of June.

"Already, many Iraqis are criticizing us for this law," he said. "They say we haven't consulted them. They're right. But if we, in the other process, which is forming the body that takes sovereignty, compensate people and let them have a say and share, I'm sure they will be satisfied more and that law will be better implemented."

The provisional assembly is expected to have more than 100 delegates, but the exact number is yet to be determined. Iraqi women have welcomed the interim constitution's goal of 25 percent representation for women.

Another concern for Mahmoud Othman is how to assure the security of the public during the general elections.

"You need security," he said. "If the situation is as now, who will line up for kilometers to vote?"

And following the election, he says, the next big step is for the people to accept their new leaders.

"Who guarantees the people will accept the results? If I'm elected, who guarantees the other will accept it," he said. "That is important so if we don't create the sound social and political atmosphere for it, it may backfire."

Restoring confidence in Iraq's political institutions, Mr. Othman says, will take many years and more elections. But the interim constitution, he says, points the country in the right direction.