Constitution writers struggle with structure, legal system

BAGHDAD — Issues blocking agraeement on a new constitution are critical to the future of Iraq, and compromise will require more than a little statesmanship among leaders with vastly different visions for the country’s new direction.
The chairman of the committee writing the constitution has asked political leaders of the Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite communities to meet Friday to see if they can forge compromises in order to finish the document by the August 15 deadline.

But the 71 members of the committee have not even agreed on the official name for this country, which was patched together under British tutelage after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

One faction supports “the Iraqi Islamic Federal Republic” — too Islamic for the secular-minded Kurds.

Another proposal would name the country the “Iraqi Federal Republic” — not Islamic enough for the Shiites.

Proposed language declaring Iraq part of the “Arab nation” goes down well among Sunnis and Shiites, a legacy of the pan-Arabism which captivated Arab elites for generations. But Iraqi Kurds are not Arabs and oppose the description of Iraq as an “Arab nation.” They also want Kurdish designated as an official language on par with Arabic.

The word “federal” opens up another can of worms. The Kurds have insisted on a federal system for Iraq, which would allow them to maintain the Kurdish mini-state they have run in the north since 1991. Federalism also has support among some Shiites, who want their own self-ruled region in the south.

But Sunni Arabs fear federalism would bring the Kurds closer to what many fear is their ultimate goal — secession and an independent Kurdish state.

Furthermore, many Kurds want to expand the borders of their self-ruled region beyond the current three provinces to other parts of Iraq — especially oil-rich Kirkuk. Many Kurds were forcibly removed from Kirkuk and other parts of the north under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Now they want their land back.

Kurdish designs on Kirkuk set off alarm bells among Iraqi Arabs and Turkomen as well as in neighbouring Turkey, which fears Kurdish expansionism might encourage Kurds in Turkey to press for their own homeland. The Turks have made clear they would not accept Kurdish control of Kirkuk.

Even those Iraqis who accept the principle of federalism differ on details such as what powers would the autonomous regions wield and — more importantly — what happens to the oil wealth in those areas. Iraq’s oil fields are in the Shiite south and in northern areas that the Kurds believe are theirs.

Shiites and Sunnis on the commission favour declaring Islam as the main foundation for Iraq’s legal code. That has alarmed many secular women, who fear a loss of their rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance.

It also worries the Kurds, who fear this could lead to greater influence by the powerful Shiite clerical hierarchy and ultimately Iran-style clerical rule. Supporters of the language insist they have no such plans.

Sunnis aren’t keen on proposals to allow Iraqis to hold dual citizenship, which many of them obtained during years in exile in Iran, Britain and other countries.

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