The Guardian 7 September, 2005

Hot debates over Iraq’s constitution

Susan Webb

Iraq’s communists say that while the draft constitution now being hotly debated is "acceptable" in its general content, they have big reservations about many aspects. They single out potential loopholes that could set back women’s rights and open the door for sectarian religious control over Iraqi society.

Iraqi Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali called the draft’s vague language on women’s status "a step backward" compared to Iraq’s current personal status law, adopted in 1959, considered one of the most advanced in the region. Under the new draft, he said, women could be subject to religious courts in matters like divorce and inheritance. "It all depends on how it is interpreted in practice", Ali told the People’s Weekly World in a phone interview last week. He credited the emergence of an outspoken Iraqi women’s movement with keeping more extreme language out of the draft. Without the women’s activism, he said, "It could have been much worse."

The ICP objected to the undemocratic way the draft was put together, in backroom deals between the two main blocs in the current government — a coalition of Shiite religious parties and an alliance of Kurdish parties. They virtually iced out other groups represented in the drafting committee, and blocked the National Assembly from discussing and voting on the draft.

The draft does reflect an acceptable consensus on federalism for Iraqi Kurdistan, decentralisation and other important issues, Ali said. Further changes may be made before it is voted up or down in a national referendum October 15. If it is approved, a new constitutional government will be elected in December. If it is rejected, voters will elect a new transitional assembly in December, and the constitution drafting process will start over.

A wide range of liberal to left groups is planning a national unity conference next month, aiming to build a political alliance for the December elections.

The debate over the constitution is "part of a bigger political and social battle about shaping the whole of the new Iraqi state", Ali said. "This is just one step."

Ali reacted with scorn to President Bush’s effort to spin the constitution battle as proof that the US war and occupation have brought democracy to Iraq. "He’s desperate for success", Ali commented. "It’s only for internal US political consumption." In Iraq, he said, "everybody understands his game. We have no illusions about his ‘democracy’. Bush has turned Iraq into a battlefield. They have achieved nothing but disaster."

Iraqis read newspapers reporting the announcement of a draft constitution August 29 in Baghdad.

US machinations have fuelled religious and ethnic strife, he said.

The US promoted adding well-known former Ba’athists to the constitution drafting committee. These individuals, said Ali, played a "very reactionary and anti-democratic role". They demanded that Islam be the main source of laws, and that women’s rights protected in the personal status law be eliminated. They opposed any kind of decentralisation for the country outside of Kurdistan. They objected to barring top Ba’ath officials from political office and to any mention of Ba’ath crimes under Saddam Hussein.

Many Iraqis feel these forces are really pushing for the return of a new Saddam Hussein-type authoritarian regime. But the hardline Ba’athists, Ali emphasised, do not speak for Sunni Arabs, whose political views span a broad range.

The US has also played up to Islamic Shiite religious parties, including an unusual phone call by Bush to Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of one of these parties, that was viewed in Iraq as giving this group added political weight.

Despite the risks that Iraqis took to vote in January, conditions have only gotten worse, leaving them angry and cynical.

"What can I do with a constitution if I have no water, gasoline and electricity?" a young woman in Baghdad asked a New York Times reporter. With summer temperatures up to 50 degrees, electricity to power fans, air conditioners and refrigerators is often only available a few hours a day. A July UN poll found wide discontent, especially over lack of electricity, unemployment and terrorist attacks.

The current government is seen as impotent, and divisions are emerging within the Shiite Islamic alliance that dominates it. Fundamentalist Moqtada al-Sadr is using the opportunity to build his own base, particularly among the unemployed, sometimes in alliance with Baathists.

In one effort to shore up power, the government, without consulting the National Assembly, recently issued a decree seizing control of trade unions’ funds. The religious parties are believed to be setting up their own Islamic trade union. Iraqi unions are asking the international labour movement to protest against the government action. Their appeal.

People’s Weekly World

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