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Drafters of Iraq's constitution grapple with dual citizenship

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Of the thorny issues that drafters of Iraq's permanent constitution tackled this week, one of the most fiercely debated is a tiny section that raises a big question: Who is an Iraqi citizen?

Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari is a British national; so are at least five of his Cabinet members. One vice president is French, the other is said to be Saudi. The speaker of the National Assembly is American, his No. 2 is Canadian and several legislators use travel documents from neighboring Iran.

With former exiles in the most powerful seats in Iraq, dual citizenship has become a sensitive topic colored by passionate disputes over allegiance and identity.

Members of the drafting committee have locked horns over how the constitution should address the thousands of Iraqis who hold second or even third nationalities. Some members, particularly Sunni Arabs who stayed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, are concerned about divided loyalties and opportunistic exiles. Others, mainly Shiite Muslims and Kurds whose persecuted families fled Saddam's Iraq, say the constitution must enshrine citizenship as a right for all Iraqis.

"Most of the people ruling Iraq have dual citizenship," said Hajim al Hassani, who spent 25 years in Connecticut and California before becoming speaker of Iraq's parliament. "I am American. I am Iraqi. Of course, right now I live in Iraq and all my efforts are working toward rebuilding this country."

Under Saddam, Iraqis weren't allowed to hold other nationalities and those who opposed him or sought refuge abroad were stripped of citizenship. The interim law drawn up under the U.S.-led occupational authority allows for dual citizenship and restores Iraqi nationality to those who lost it under Saddam. Those laws, a starting point for the drafters, become null once a new constitution is adopted.

Some members of the drafting committee want to extend citizenship to children born to Iraqi mothers and foreign fathers, non-Iraqi women married to Iraqi men and generations of Iraqi refugees who live in Iran. (Citizenship in the Arab world generally conveys through men.) A compromise in the works Tuesday would grant those rights, as long as dual citizens in top government positions agreed to renounce their second nationalities.

"Those sensitive positions cannot go to people with dual citizenship, but at the same time we can't deprive those people of important positions," said Homam Hamoodi, a Shiite and chairman of the committee. He spent years of exile in Iran, but said he held only Iraqi citizenship.

Late Tuesday, members were still at an impasse on the emotionally charged issue. Dual citizenship is one of many controversial topics that have stalled talks and prompted worries that the committee won't make its mid-August deadline.

Caught between opponents and supporters of dual citizenship are Iraqis such as Yonadam Kanna, an Assyrian Christian legislator. Kanna said he understood that tyranny forced many into exile, but that he resented politicians who kept one foot in Iraq and one in their adoptive nations.

"Even at the top levels I think it's OK, as long as he moves to Iraq, invests in Iraq and doesn't keep his wife and children in another country," said Kanna, who never took a second nationality even though he fled Iraq after Saddam sentenced him to death.

The rivalry between exile and non-exile Iraqi politicians flourished long before the issue of dual citizenship arose. The Western-educated exile crowd, with overseas property and flawless English, typically have an easier time negotiating with American officials than those who waited out Saddam's reign with extended families in dusty hometowns. At state functions, exiles in dapper suits stand apart from tribesmen in flowing robes or bulky shoes from the local market.

Iraqis who lived under Saddam said they were wary of the exiles' foreign sensibilities and sometimes felt the exile circle regarded them as a city kid viewed a country cousin. Many ordinary Iraqis, even those who empathize with the persecution that drove opposition figures away, said the new leaders didn't represent them.

"Only the Iraqis who never left Iraq and faced all our problems and disasters deserve to run this country because only they know how much we've suffered," said Mohammed Hassan, a shopkeeper in Baghdad. "Now, when we have crises and the situation gets bad, most of the politicians leave very fast and take their families with them."

Iraqi political figures are often spotted on flights from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which many former exiles use as a connection to visit their families in Beirut, Dubai, New York and Riyadh. A British citizen on the Iraqi electoral commission once told a reporter he couldn't wait for the election season to end so he could retreat to his rose garden in London.

Saadoun al Zubeidi, one of the few Sunni Arabs on the drafting committee, said he preferred to leave dual citizenship out of the constitution rather than have the matter decided by "the people who are now enjoying the opportunity of having an impact on events, who have come from abroad either as exiles or expatriates."

He opposes dual nationality for high-ranking government officials whose jobs require tough talks with neighboring countries.

"In the case of negotiating for treaties between Iran and Iraq, how can we guarantee that he will put the interests of Iraq before his allegiance to Iran?" he asked.

Fauzi Hariri, a Kurdish adviser to Iraq's foreign minister, said the privileges afforded former exiles often were paid for with the blood of family members slain under Saddam. He thinks top officials should be allowed to keep their dual citizenship, saying former expatriates were exposed to democratic principles that weren't available under Saddam.

"The exiles who came back were able to follow in a much freer fashion the events taking place in Iraq," said Hariri, who holds dual British-Iraqi nationality. "That doesn't make them less Iraqi than those who stayed. They paid dearly for that exile. The vast number of people who were exiled lost everything."


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report.)


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