Iraq's draft charter raises fears of Islamic dominance

Ambiguity, conflicts leave few happy

proposal called `not a workable document'

August 25, 2005|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - As Iraq's National Assembly prepares to approve a draft constitution as early as today, legal experts and some political leaders warned yesterday that the charter's explicit endorsement of Islam could give religious hard-liners a tight grip on a country that was once one of the Middle East's most secular.

In an effort to strike a compromise between the nation's religious and secular segments, Iraq's proposed constitution reserves a central place for Islamic law in the legal system while attempting to safeguard personal freedoms and democracy.

Its ambiguous language and conflicting provisions have left neither side particularly happy, however, and the document is likely to be the subject of heated debate in Iraqi courts for years to come.

The constitution makes Islam the "official religion" of Iraq and a main source of legislation rather than the main source, which many Shiite conservatives sought.

Secular leaders remain concerned, however, about a clause that prohibits any law that "contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." Critics fear that provision could be used by religious hard-liners to impose strict Islamic law, such as banning alcohol, restricting women's rights and imposing harsh Quranic punishments such as stoning.

The draft also calls for gender equality and privacy rights, and prohibits laws that contradict democracy or "basic freedoms" guaranteed by the constitution.

"It's not a workable document," said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, an Islamic scholar and law professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "They brushed their differences under the carpet and crafted language that they could vote for. It's a time bomb that will explode as soon as it's enacted."

Iyad Jamal al-Din, a Shiite cleric in Iraq and a political activist who opposes mixing religion and government, expressed similar concerns.

"It tries to preserve human rights, but within a choking religious society that is a clone of the Iranian system," he said. "I fear this constitution will lead us into a dark society controlled by extremists."

"The problem is that there are no agreements on these questions," said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who advised Kurdish politicians on the constitution. "It allows any cleric to make his own interpretation of the law and opens the door to a whole range of abuses."

Galbraith said the draft falls well short of the kind of democratic government the Bush administration hopes for in Iraq.

"The U.S. now has to recognize that they overthrew Saddam Hussein to replace him with a pro-Iranian state," Galbraith said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the charter is the best one possible in light of Iraq's ethnic and religious differences. He said the document accurately reflects the views of many Iraqis who strongly believe in providing a role for Islam in the state.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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