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Iraq set to take major step toward drafting constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's National Assembly members will begin crafting the nation's new constitution Sunday with a crucial first decision: naming of the chairman of the constitutional committee.

The choice may indicate whether the final document will have a secular or Islamist cast to it, and whether the constitution will be a unifying force or a divisive one.

Drafting of the constitution is the single most important job for the transitional government that just took power in Baghdad, and could hold the key to whether Iraq can hold together as a single nation. Following adoption of the constitution, Iraq is to hold fresh elections at the end of the year.

The two thorniest issues are likely to be how influential will be the role of Islam and how much autonomy to grant the Kurdish minority, roughly 20 percent of the population that lives mainly in northern Iraq. Also key will be finding a way to bring the Sunni minority meaningfully into the discussions so they will buy into the final document.

Last week, the assembly named 55 people to the committee, amounting to one-fifth of the entire National Assembly. Of those, 28 are members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite political juggernaut; 15 are members of the powerful Kurdish alliance; former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate received seven seats; and the remaining went to Iraq's smaller minority sects.

Sunnis, roughly 20 percent of the population, received just two seats, reflecting their under-representation in the assembly after most Sunni Arabs stayed away from the polls.

Assembly members said they hope to name a chairman quickly so they can meet the Aug. 15 deadline spelled out in the interim constitution, called the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL).

Some would like the constitutional committee chairman to be a secular person, such as Allawi; others feel the majority Shiite sect should lead the discussion—and the push for a document that calls for a bigger role for Islamic law and Shiite political causes.

Homam Hamoodi, a Shiite National Assembly member who could possibly chair the committee, believes the transitional law does not go far enough in assigning a role for Islam. Currently, the transitional law says: "Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation."

"We believe that what is stipulated in TAL is not entirely satisfactory, yet it satisfies secularists," Hamoodi said.

Rasim Alawadi, a National Assembly member under Allawi's slate who favors a secular constitution, believe the drafters "should bear in mind that Iraq is a multi-ethnic multi-national country. Those in charge of this process should leave behind all their sectarian beliefs and write a constitution that is guaranteed to be accepted by all Iraqis."

The role of religion may not define the success of the document.

"They (the drafters) understand this society is diverse and cannot be ruled by either religious ideology or a secular one," said Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. "They will have to create a sound political system."

The challenge will be keeping the nation intact while meeting Kurdish demands for an autonomous regional parliament, president and budget. The Kurds have said they still would want to be in the central government as well as of a unified Iraqi military.

Some fear such stipulations in the law could start a Kurdish push for an independent state. Keeping Iraq whole has been a key goal of U.S. policy.

The committee also must find a way to include Sunnis in the discussion.

The committee has created a constitutional subcommittee largely made up of Sunnis to share their ideas with the National Assembly, but that group cannot vote on the document. Sunni leaders say that is not enough.

Members of the Muslim Scholars Association, a major Sunni group, already are threatening to find three provinces to block the passing of the constitution, as the TAL allows, if they do not like what the constitution says.

"We are afraid this government will stay under the umbrella of the multinational forces," said Sheikh Abdel Salem al-Qubasi, spokesman for Muslim Scholars Association. "What is important is that the constitution be coherent about basic Iraqi principles."


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.