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Iraqi leaders grapple with role of Islam and women, Kurdish issues

BAGHDAD, Iraq—After missing the deadline to draft a framework for Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein government, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council continued to negotiate Sunday about religion, the role of women and Kurdish autonomy.

At stake is what kind of temporary regime will take over when the U.S.-led coalition relinquishes sovereignty on June 30 and what procedures will be set up for electing a permanent government later. Two American plans for the transition have fallen by the wayside, and officials are now trying to hammer out an agreement on a third option.

The failure to produce a constitution on schedule was the latest in a series of missed deadlines as the coalition prepares to cede authority to Iraqis by June 30. Nevertheless, coalition and U.S. officials continue to insist that the handover will take place on schedule.

Instead of American-backed caucuses to pick a transitional government, the new plan will hand power to a revamped version of the unpopular, unelected Governing Council, Iraqi politicians and analysts said. The council is leaning toward establishing a one-person presidency with two vice presidents, all three elected by the other members, officials said.

Under that plan, Iraq would continue to be governed for the near term by an American-picked body whose stature has diminished in the eyes of Iraqis during the seven months it's existed. More than 100,000 U.S. troops would remain in the country, and the transitional government would steer the country toward elections.

The original American plan called for elections in December 2005, but Iraq's most influential political voice, Shiite Muslim Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, has demanded a vote no later than the end of this year. The United Nations has said elections could occur within eight months if major legal and logistical issues were tackled immediately.

A final draft of the transition blueprint won't be signed until after an Islamic holiday on Tuesday, council members said. They added that discussions have mellowed considerably since a third of the council walked out of talks Friday, complaining that they were blindsided by a vote on women's rights.

Negotiations extended beyond a midnight Saturday deadline agreed on by the U.S.-led coalition and the council. By late afternoon Sunday, council members were still debating the most divisive topics: quotas for women in government, the level of Kurdish autonomy and to what degree Islamic law, known as Sharia, would shape the new constitution.

"The Sharia problem is quite a problem," said Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Muslim council member and the leader of the Kurdish National Struggle. "But the differences are narrowing and we will tackle them one by one."

Women's advocates have demanded that women, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, fill at least 40 percent of government posts. Some Islamic hard-liners on the council opposed quotas for women, while other members suggested a figure closer to 25 percent.

"If we don't have quotas, women will get nothing," said Naseer Kamal Chatterji, a moderate Sunni on the council.

Conservative Muslim council members want to make Islam the sole basis of Iraqi law over the wishes of L. Paul Bremer III, the top American envoy in Iraq, who's suggested that he would veto such a constitution. Bremer must approve the final documents. One draft of the basic law, published in Sunday's coalition-funded al Sabah newspaper, calls Islam "a basic source."

"The division is over whether Islam will be the base for law, or a base for law," Chatterji said. "The difference between those two words is so important."

Kurdish issues are also problematic. The Kurds want Kurdish included as an official language of Iraq and are pushing to maintain their militias, known as the peshmerga. Both topics have sparked fierce debate. Also on the table is how much authority Kurds will have in their self-governed northern region, and how oil revenues and taxes will be apportioned.

Bremer "had an active role and was in and out of the meetings," Othman said. Bremer was determined to meet the Saturday deadline, but council members said the divisions were too deep to be overcome in time.

Sami al Askari, the senior aide to current Governing Council Chairman Mohammad Bahr Ulum, said the name most commonly mentioned as a possible president is Ebrahim Jafari, a leader in the Islamic Dawa (Call) Party, a moderate Shiite organization.

Jafari, a physician who fled Saddam's repression in 1980, is the only member of the governing council who consistently gets a favorable rating higher than 50 percent in opinion polls, said Munquith Daghir, who runs an independent polling institute that's conducting monthly in-home surveys of Iraqis.

The negotiations are playing out against a backdrop of great paradoxes in the country.

A January opinion poll in six major cities showed that 45 percent of respondents believe that "conditions for peace and stability" are improving. Salaries are higher, there are more goods in the markets, and people are less afraid to walk the streets in most cities.

In the same poll, by Daghir's firm, the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, 70.7 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly agreed that "democracy offers Iraq the hope of peace, stability and a better life, while the people attacking coalition forces offer only chaos."

However, the U.S.-led occupation and the political vacuum created by almost a year without a sovereign government, coupled with the continuing unemployment and gaps in basic public services, has caused widespread frustration.

"Given more than three decades of despotic rule, a ruined economy, a devastated country and the collapse of state institutions, conditions in Iraq are daunting," said a recent United Nations fact-finding report. "The underlying tensions could fuel the existing potential for civil strife and violence."


(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.