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Iraq: Agreeing On A Constitution Will Be A Challenge

Iraq's Governing Council this week took a first step toward the preparation of a national constitution that will recast the country as a federation. But agreeing on what form the federation will take -- with a strong central government or with major powers devolved to the regions -- is not going to be easy. Though any constitutional convention is still months away, debate is already raging within Iraq over how tightly the country should be bound together. RFE/RL looks at the position of one group, the Iraqi Kurds, as a measure of the challenges.

Prague, 14 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Correspondents who travel to northern Iraq say one of the first things that strikes visitors is how wedded the Kurds remain to the U.S.-backed idea of an Iraqi federation.

One sign of that commitment is the fact that the region's Kurdish administration flies the Kurdish and Iraqi national flags side by side on public buildings. That is something that was never seen in the past decade when the area -- protected by a U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zone -- remained outside of Saddam Hussein's control.

But behind the official commitment, there is lively public debate over just what a federation means. The debate is being fanned by concerns that the Kurds -- who currently enjoy a much stronger economy than the rest of Iraq, as well as self-rule -- could suffer losses if the country reforms with a strong central government in which they are again a minority.

The issue grew more pressing this week as Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council took its first step toward the preparation of a post-Hussein constitution. The council named a committee to begin addressing details of how to create an assembly to draft a constitution, including whether the assembly delegates should be elected or selected. No date has yet been fixed for holding the constitutional assembly.

The key question the constitution will have to resolve is how tightly Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups want to bind themselves in a new state. The state's form, due to Iraq's recent experience with dictatorship, is almost certain to be a federation. But the details of the federation -- whether there will be a strong central government or major powers will be devolved to the regions -- remain to be decided.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, deputy director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, recently returned from two months in the country. During that time, he traveled widely in the north and spoke with many Kurds about their vision of a federated Iraq.

Al-Karadaghi said he found people less enthusiastic about their prospects in a reunited Iraq than they were before the war to topple Saddam Hussein began in March. At that time, he said, ordinary Kurds saw the imminent fall of the regime as opening up new opportunities.

"[Before the war], I noticed that the mood was really more of a kind of 'Iraqiness.' They were looking forward to the regime being changed -- that was the general mood -- that it might be good for the Kurds, and the Kurds will be able to be an equal part, sharing equally the power in Baghdad. They will be an equal partner to Arabs. There would be no more taboos, and a Kurd can become anything -- president, prime minister, minister of defense and so on," al-Karadaghi said.

But now, he said, Kurds feel threatened by some of the political trends they have seen developing in post-Hussein Iraq, including the rise of religious-based parties among the Arab Shi'a and the appeal of some other parties to Arab nationalism. That is making many Kurds talk less now about the advantages of sharing power in a strong new government and more about how to preserve what they have.

"Now, Kurds are seeing what is going on in the rest of Iraq, the attacks on Americans and all these calls to enforce Islamic law, and that is something which makes a lot of Kurds very nervous about the situation. People now say maybe we should not look forward to [opportunities in] Baghdad but [instead] preserve ourselves. We can preserve what we have, and we don't want to get the same kind of trouble and situation which is now everywhere in Iraq," al-Karadaghi said.

Central to the Kurds' concerns is how to preserve not only their current self-rule and relative prosperity but also several post-Hussein changes they have long desired. Those are the U.S.-led coalition's approval of a Kurdish governor in Kirkuk and of a strong Kurdish political representation in Mosul. Both cities have large Kurdish populations that suffered discrimination under Hussein's Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party, including a policy of expelling Kurds from Kirkuk and replacing them with Arabs from other parts of the country.

It is unclear how much the growing Kurdish debate will change the Kurds' current stance within the Governing Council as the constitutional process gets under way.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish leader and member of the Governing Council, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL that, for now, the Kurds' official position has not changed. But he said it could shift in the future depending on events elsewhere in the country.

"We are still sticking to our old formula of federation within Iraq, a democratic, pluralistic regime in Iraq with a federation for Kurdistan with the center. There is no change in that, really, and the question will be discussed more seriously with everybody while making the constitution. There is no change now, but I don't know whether with time there will be more [Kurdish] declarations if things in Iraq will go otherwise," Othman said.

In an effort to set forth a unified Kurdish position before the war, the Kurdish parliament declared last year that any Iraqi federation must include a geographic area named Kurdistan that would comprise those areas of northern Iraq with a Kurdish majority.

The parliament said Kurdistan, whose main non-Kurdish minorities are Arab and Turkoman, should have its own parliament, its capital in the city of Kirkuk, and enjoy the right to fly the Kurdish flag beside the national one.

Othman said those things remain the Kurds' basic demands and that the coming months of constitutional negotiations with Iraq's other groups will determine under what formula they can best be secured.

"Of course, that should be negotiated. We cannot say it shouldn't be negotiable, but we hope that we could persuade the others to accept that. Federation, in principle, is accepted. Even in this council it is written that we struggle for a [federal], democratic Iraq. But what type of federation, whether it will depend on political decentralization or administrative decentralization, the details haven't yet been discussed. I'm sure there will be different points of view, and that remains to be cleared up," Othman said.

As the Kurds consider what they want an Iraqi federation to be, their debate is being mirrored by Iraq's other groups. Iraq's Shi'a majority, suppressed under Hussein, sees a new constitution as a chance to secure a much larger political role. The Arab Sunni community, which has dominated modern Iraq, is looking for ways to limit any losses of power.

Such rival interests could mean that drafting the constitution will be a lengthy process, despite calls on all sides for it to be done quickly to clear the way for national elections.

The U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, and the Governing Council said this month that they hope the constitutional assembly and subsequent national elections for an Iraqi government can be held within the coming 12 months.