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Iraq: Draft Constitution Due Today, But Will It Be Ready?

Kurdish calls for autonomy increased as the constitution deadline approached Iraq’s constitutional committee faces a deadline today for completing the draft of the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein charter and submitting it to the National Assembly for approval. But while U.S. and Iraqi officials are expressing optimism that the document will be ready on time, there is no certainty that remaining disputes will not force a delay.

Prague, 15 August 2005 (RFE/RL) – According to the calendar, Iraq’s draft constitution is to be ready today and presented to the National Assembly.

And, indeed, the National Assembly was due to meet at 1600 Prague time to receive and consider the draft.

But that time passed with no draft submitted and some news reports quote legislators as now saying the assembly meeting will be delayed for at least some two hours (until 1800 Prague time).

As it becomes increasingly unclear whether the draft constitution will be ready today, the possibility is growing that Iraqi politicians may seek an extension from the legislature for finishing the work.

Hussain al-Shahristani, the deputy speaker of parliament, told Reuters that the first option remains that “everyone agrees on a draft of the constitution and it is presented to the National Assembly on time.”

But he added there is “a likely possibility” that instead, the National Assembly will be asked to vote to postpone the draft deadline by some two weeks to a month.

Postponing the draft deadline would require the assembly to amend the Transitional Administrative Law approved a year ago by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

The law, which acts as Iraq’s temporary constitution, had set today’s deadline for the draft as a key milestone in Iraq’s political transition and stipulates that the National Assembly should be dissolved if it fails to reach it.

In hopes of reaching the milestone on time, U.S. and Iraqi officials have been pressing the constitutional drafting committee for weeks to find a consensus.

The past days have seen U.S. and Iraqi officials, including U.S. President George W. Bush, putting continual pressure on the drafting committee to resolve the problems in time.

“We have made it clear that we believe that a constitution can be and should be agreed upon by 15 August," Bush said on 11 August. "And so I’m operating on the assumption that it will be agreed upon by 15 August. Obviously, there’s some difficult issues, federalism being one, [another being the] role of religion.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari told reporters on 14 August that he is “optimistic."

And al-Ja'fari’s spokesman, Laith Kubba, was even more upbeat. He said the same day that from what he hears, "there is an agreement and the document will be submitted on time.”

But the wrangling on the Constitutional Drafting Committee has been fierce, and -- if there is an agreement -- it has yet to be officially announced.

One of the toughest disputes is over how much Islamic law should be a source for Iraq’s legal code.

Secular groups object to demands by religious parties that Islam be the sole source for Iraq’s laws. They say the sources should also include other models, such as Western systems, to guarantee individual and women’s rights.

The dispute over the sources of the legal code has spilled out of the meetings of the Constitutional Drafting Committee and into the streets.

Baghdad shop owner Hussein Abdul Amir told Reuters he wants most of the principles in the constitution to be derived from the Koran.

"I think that no one will accept this constitution if it contradicts the traditions of the society and the Islamic religion, especially since the majority of the people are Muslims," Amir said. "It is supposed that most, or the majority, of the principles of the constitution be derived from the Koran."

Another issue is over how much autonomy the Kurdish-administered north should have as part of a federal Iraq.

And, there is a tough last-minute dispute over whether the country’s Arab Shi’a should also have powers of self-rule.

That argument has seen Arab Sunnis rejecting demands from the largest Shi’a religious party to create a single autonomous state comprising Shi’a-majority areas in Iraq’s south and center.

The Arab Sunnis fear this could lead to autonomous authorities in both the north and south of Iraq hoarding oil revenues and leaving their own central region -- which has no oil fields -- impoverished.

The federalism dispute, too, is being closely followed by the Iraqi public.

"We do not want the kind of federalism that divides the country," Baghdad resident Abu Ahmed told Reuters. "Iraq should be united. I support the kind of federalism that ensures the unity of our country. Federalism on the level of provinces is also possible."

One question now is whether -- in a final effort to meet today’s deadline -- some members of the drafting committee may try to submit a document that is not fully supported by all three of Iraq’s major communities

Several Shi’a leaders have threatened to do just that in recent hours if they cannot reach a consensus with the Sunni Arabs. They would then hope to build a majority for approving the document in the National Assembly, where Shi’a parties are strongly represented.

That would clear the way for proceeding toward the next big milestones in Iraq’s political transition this year: a national referendum on the constitution in October and a general election for a first constitutional government in December.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that a partially supported constitution -- or a vaguely worded one that puts off the toughest issues for later -- could fail to pass in the national referendum. And that might only derail the democracy building process later on.

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