Council misses constitution deadline

Iraqi group debates roles of Islam, women, Kurds

February 29, 2004|By Christine Spolar | Christine Spolar,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi Governing Council, troubled by questions over the role of Islam, the status of women and demands by the Kurdish minority to maintain self-rule, failed to meet a deadline yesterday to approve an interim constitution.

Two council members, in a hastily called, late-night news briefing, admitted another delay and "some serious problems" in the months-long and fragile process of building democracy in Iraq.

"We're going to have a long night, I can tell you that," member Mouwafak al-Rubaie said after more than 12 hours of caucuses and discussions within the 25-member council. But, he added, "the most important thing is to get the document right."

"We've started to learn a new trade," al-Rubaie said as the council faced additional hours or days of work. "And that is compromise."

The delay underscored the struggle to define a national identity for 25 million people with deep religious and ethnic differences who have lived through 35 years of dictatorship. Three groups - Shiite Muslims, the majority population much persecuted under Saddam Hussein; Sunni Muslims, the one-time ruling class; and Kurds, a majority population in the north - are jockeying for power.

The transitional constitution is key to setting up an interim government in Iraq in time for the turnover of sovereignty June 30 by the U.S.-led coalition. It is also seen as an important marker in defining the boundaries of a permanent constitution to be written next year.

On Friday, a dispute over women's rights prompted eight council members, all Shiite Muslims, to walk out of the constitutional debate. That dustup came after the repeal of a proposal to give clerics the right to adjudicate family matters.

Several council members described the proposal as a first step to impose sharia, or Islamic law, in the case of divorce, inheritance and family disputes, a move some fear would undermine women's status in society.

The role of Islam loomed large over the council debate this weekend. Conservatives within the council want to enshrine Islam as the main source of law in Iraq, while moderates want only to acknowledge Islam as one source of influence. The controversial vote Friday still rankled, some council members indicated, and would probably be reconsidered in light of the continuing debate.

Aides to council members said late last night that differences might be smoothed over within hours or days.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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