Wednesday, February 25, 2004

U.N. Joins Debate Over Iraq Government

Rather than breaking the impasse over how to form a new government, a much-awaited U.N. report has simply told the Iraqis it's up to them to determine how to form an administration to take power from the Americans on June 30.

That opens the door to protracted deliberations within an Iraqi leadership which has shown little sign of cohesion and whose members are seeking to position themselves for power in the new Iraq.

The U.N. report, released Monday in New York, took two options off the table. It said elections by June 30, as demanded by the Shiite Muslim clergy, are not feasible for the reasons Washington had long cited — no electoral structure, no reliable census and an untenable security situation.

And the report, by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, also found what the Americans already knew — that the U.S. plan to set up a government through regional caucuses to take power June 30 lacked support among Iraqis, who feared it could be manipulated by the United States to install its favorites in power.

But Brahimi avoided suggesting a roadmap to the Iraqis, as the Americans had hoped when the mission was approved by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Instead, Brahimi urged the Iraqis themselves to come up with alternatives and offered U.N. assistance in working out a formula.

The strategy has some merit. The Iraqis have already rejected two American plans for setting up a new government, and they need to begin taking responsibility for their own political future.

However, the U.N. strategy also opens the door to protracted haggling among disparate factions on the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council at a time when the different groups are promoting their own interests. Meanwhile, time is running out before the June 30 power transfer date.

The Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, published in London and distributed throughout the Arab world, quoted an unnamed Governing Council member as saying the body is sharply divided over several major issues.

"As soon as we finish discussions on one topic, agree on it and begin talks on another, digressions come up and pull us back to the matter we just agreed on, and one member or another brings up a new dispute over it," the newspaper said Wednesday.

Shiite members of the council are calling for elections as soon as possible. Sunni Arabs, fearing domination by the Shiite majority, prefer delaying elections. Kurds remain focused on protecting and expanding their system of self-rule in their northern homeland.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite councilman, said he prefers to see a weak caretaker government assume power June 30 with his main task "to prepare for elections." Others would like to see a government with greater powers.

"If there is no election or an elected legislative council, then who is going to take over sovereignty from the coalition authority?" asked Hamed al-Bayati of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "We're open to suggestions, but if it doesn't result in a representative body, then the body that takes over has to be very limited in its powers."

At the same time, the United States, anxious to end the formal occupation well ahead of the November U.S. presidential elections, lacks the leverage it enjoyed soon after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April.

Before the war, U.S. officials envisaged an American-run military government would run the country in transition to democracy for about two years — a timetable that angered even the most pro-American opposition figures.

As U.S. casualties began to mount last November, the Americans accelerated the date for transferring sovereignty from 2005 until June 30. The Iraqis, anxious to regain control of their own country, have accepted the new timetable. The only thing all factions agree on is the immutability of the June 30 date. What they haven't agreed on is how to govern thereafter.

With the coalition authority a self-declared lame duck, new Iraqi power blocs have emerged. The Shiite clergy, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, is now arguably the main political force in this country — where Shiites make up an estimated 60 percent of the 25 million people.

Kurdish factions, the most pro-American group, are making overtures to al-Sistani, clearly hoping for his support as they lobby for autonomy in a new, federal Iraq. Several Shiite members of the council, notably al-Rubaie, have taken up al-Sistani's positions, clearly lobbying for his blessing.

The Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraq despite their minority status, are struggling to find a unified voice. Most of the insurgents attacking U.S. and coalition forces are believed to be Sunnis.

In part, al-Sistani's new prestige has been helped along by the Americans. Last year, the cleric's opposition to U.S. plans for organizing a constitutional convention prompted Washington to scrap a seven-point plan for setting up an Iraqi government.

The second plan, adopted Nov. 15, is now in ruins after al-Sistani demanded that the new legislature be chosen by the voters rather than in regional caucuses.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Iraqi Official Backs Off on Islam Issue

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The president of Iraq's Governing Council said Wednesday there was no final decision on the precise role of Islam in the country's draft interim constitution, which is to take effect at the end of this month.

Mohsen Abdul-Hamid appeared to back away from an earlier demand when he called for Islam to be the principle basis for Iraq's laws.

His remarks came two days after L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, suggested he would block any such move.

"This question has not reached its final stage," Abdul-Hamid, a Sunni Muslim, told reporters. He said, however, that the majority in the Governing Council agreed that "Islam is the official state religion."

He and another official, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim and spokesman for council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, stressed that at this stage, the draft interim charter says Islam is "a primary source of legislation" — as opposed to the primary source.

"It is still 'a' that's in the draft," said Abdul-Mahdi, of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "Bremer was in today's Governing Council meeting and said that he generally agreed with this."

Bremer must sign into law all measures passed by the 25-member council, including the interim constitution. Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy, however, have demanded the document be approved by an elected legislature. Under U.S. plans, a permanent constitution would not be drawn up and voted on until 2005.

Abdel-Hamid, this month's Governing Council president and a member of a drafting committee, said last week that he wanted "a constitution that represents the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people, with all the respect due to other identities."

Abdul-Hamid heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, which espouses a conservative view of Islam.

His proposal could have broad effects on secular Iraq, taking away rights of women in divorce and inheritance cases, shuttering liquor stores and banning gambling, legal experts say.

Representatives of Iraq's Kurdish and Christian parties, and those with liberal Western views, have voiced opposition to the Islamization of Iraq's legal code.

To take effect, the Islamic law proposal would have to be approved by the framing committee and added to the transitional law, which must be accepted by the full Governing Council.

The transition law is to act as Iraq's constitution until a permanent constitution replaces it, probably by 2005.

The United States has been trying to balance its plans for Iraq with the wishes of its Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders.

Shiite leaders are challenging the U.S. plan to choose an interim government through regional caucuses, saying only direct elections are acceptable. The United States believes elections are not yet possible because of continuing violence and the difficulty of registering people and holding the vote.

The United Nations has sent an envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to determine if early elections are possible. He is due to report his findings to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday.

Annan is expected to support the Bush administration's advice against holding direct elections, but will delay other recommendations until he consults with other governments, a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Hakim said Wednesday any future government must stem from the will of the people, or else Iraqis will be shoved aside as they were under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

Al-Hakim spoke to more than 1,000 tribal leaders — including Sunnis and Shiites — bringing some sheiks to tears with his vows to fight for a united Iraq.

"The first foundation of the new Iraq must be a real dependence on the people. Otherwise the people would be marginalized as was the case in the past," al-Hakim said.

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