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Iraq: Dispute In Committee Could Delay Drafting Of Constitution

An Iraqi technical committee is taking its first step toward creating a constitution for the post-Saddam Hussein era. But a dispute has emerged between Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds about how to form the group that will draft the document.

Prague, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A dispute has emerged within the committee tasked with paving the way for democratic self-government in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

After two months of deliberations, Iraq's 24-member Constitutional Committee is expected to present its recommendations soon to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council on how to choose those who will draft a new constitution.

Washington considers the creation and ratification of the constitution to be a vital step toward eventually handing over administrative powers to a democratically elected government in Baghdad. U.S. officials hope a draft constitution will be submitted for approval by the Iraqi people through a nationwide referendum sometime next year.

But after two months of debate, members of Iraq's Constitutional Committee say they are deadlocked over whether the group that drafts the document should be elected, appointed, or formed through a combination of elections and appointments.

Following mounting international pressure -- led by France -- for a speedy handover of power to Iraqis, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested last week that a group of experts could be assembled to complete an initial draft of a constitution in about six months.

"A period of about six months seems to be appropriate for such a group to determine the form of government that they would like to have embedded in the constitution, and the form of representation that the people will have in that government embedded in a constitution," Powell said.

But members of the Constitutional Committee now say their deadlock makes it unlikely that a draft can be finished even within one year. And even if the process is hurried so that the draft is ready in six months, they say the election of an Iraqi government is likely to be delayed until at least 2005.

Today, Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for current Governing Council President Ahmad Chalabi, emphasized that theme, saying it will take time for Iraqis to "coalesce" on issues regarding the framework of a democratic Iraq. He said, "I don't think six months will be sufficient, but we must wait and see."

And L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said on 26 September that while six months seems a "reasonable guess" as to how long it will take to draft a constitution, "there are no deadlines involved here."

In the face of such sentiment, Powell last night appeared to back away from his earlier remarks. "We all want to transfer responsibility for Iraq's governance back to the Iraqi people as quickly as it's possible. The worst thing we can do -- the absolutely worst thing we can do -- is to move this process too quickly, push it along too fast and hand off to a government without the legitimacy or the capacity to govern. That would be a formula for failure," he said.

The dispute over how to form the drafting group shows that committee members are divided along religious and ethnic lines. Most Shi'a representatives respect the religious rulings of prominent Shi'a clerics like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. During the summer, al-Sistani issued an edict insisting that the 100 to 150 people who draft the constitution must be elected. Al-Sistani also said a national census should be organized to confirm that Shi'a form a 60 percent to 65 percent majority of the Iraqi population.

But Kurds and Sunnis are expressing reservations about elections to the drafting group. Some are concerned that elections will allow Shi'a to dominate the drafting process. Among them is Saad Shakir, a Sunni deputy to Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi. Shakir said the writing of the constitution will be "like a battle" and that elections for the drafting group will almost certainly bring about an Islamic republic.

Council member Samir Shakir Mahmud Sumaiday, a Sunni leader who supports appointments rather than elections, said the current security situation in Iraq makes it impossible to conduct a free and fair ballot for the drafters. He also argues that without election laws, voter-registration laws, or adequate voter lists, Iraqis will never be confident that the elections reflect the will of the people.

Fuad Massum, a prominent Iraqi Kurd, chairs the technical committee in charge of creating the procedures for drafting the constitution. "If there are to be elections of members of the constitutional drafting assembly, these elections will take at least 18 months," he said. "And that's the shortest period. If we follow a general census, the preparation for the census will take more than two years. And if we go down the road of partial elections or appointments of members who are specialists in this field -- constitutionalists, lawyers, politicians -- that process might take from six to seven months."

Massum said another option that has been discussed for the formation of the drafting group would be to create an interim constitution that could be in place in as little as four months. He said a temporary constitution would avoid a legal vacuum in Iraq until a permanent constitution can be finalized in about two years.