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Iraq Report: August 12, 2005

12 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 26
RFI SPEAKS WITH ISLAMIST WOMEN ON THE CONSTITUTION. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) correspondent Asma al-Sarraj interviewed female Islamist activists on the constitution for the weekly program

RFI: Why do you believe that freedom [if stated as a constitutional principle] means decadence? Why are you concerned over this issue?

Mahdiya Abd al-Lami (member of the Muslim Women's Federation [Ittihad al-Mar'a al-Muslima] and one of the six participants in a recent women's demonstration in support of Islamic law implementation): We support freedom but not in the concept that we can see currently. Islam is the first [system] to have called for the freedom of women and to have treated women with respect. Islam highlights the importance of women.

RFI: What is your current intention? What is the concern of Islamist women now?

Abd al-Lami: The demands raised by those [secularist demonstrators] in front of us are demands contradictory to Islam.

RFI: Why? They demand the implementation of [international] agreements that arose from decades-long fights for the rights of women and from studying the situation of women all over the world. They demand that these agreements be incorporated into the constitution.

Abd al-Lami: Yes. All of us, as women of Iraq, were oppressed for many years. Now, everybody fights for something better. Efforts should be spent on laying a solid base for improving the situation of Iraqi women in a complex way. We do not want that one opinion be given priority over another. We want justice, not equality.

RFI: What is your objection to equality?

Abd al-Lami: If we demand an absolute equality between man and woman, that would mean depriving women of certain rights.

RFI: How?

Abd al-Lami: For example, the woman is the one who takes maternity leave, not the man. If woman were equal in law, she would be deprived of this legitimate right. When a woman gives birth to a child, she has to care for it and raise it properly. The man is not engaged in that.

RFI: This is rather a case of the biological differences between men and women, as also defined in international documents.

Abd al-Lami: Indeed, the biological difference between men and women is clear.

RFI: But we are not going to speak about the biological differences. We are going to speak about the cultural differences as society has set legal limits to the behavior of women, depriving them of many chances only because they are marked with this biological difference.

Abd al-Lami: We want a woman to be presented as a person, not as a woman. She must be presented as a person in Iraqi society. She must participate in all sectors of political, cultural, and social life along with men.

RFI: Do you not think that this demand of yours has a lot in common with the demands of women's movements worldwide, which refuse that women be dealt with as females or as a thing?

Abd al-Lami: I share some of their demands, not all of them. We see a difference in what they want in the interests of Iraqi women and what we, for our part, want likewise in the interests of Iraqi women. We oppose some details [of their demands] that are in conflict with Islamic law.

RFI: You now have representatives taking part in writing the draft constitution. The women who have expressed their fears are those who have no representatives. They are, for instance, leftist, secularist, and Christian women. Why are you against them?

Abd al-Lami: No, I have not said we were against them. Islam holds patronage over the whole specter of Iraqi society. We all are brothers and sisters in humanity.

RFI: But you impose your conditions and your measures on them.

Abd al-Lami: Why should we impose anything? Why should we not say: "a language of understanding and dialogue?" We can agree with each other.

RFI: If a constitutional principle is laid down it is, in a way, imposed on all. All subsequent laws will be enacted according to it.

Abd al-Lami: It may be possible to reach decisions that do not form any imposition or enforcement from any party. Plans may be made to meet the demands of all parties. We will not impose on them anything they do not want.

RFI: You, personally, are afraid of decadency. You lived in the times of the former regime when the so-called "campaign of virtue" was launched; there was even [the punishment of] decapitation, as you know. Nothing of this managed to overcome the negative phenomena produced by the regime itself. Why are you, then, afraid of progressive women's activists who know what they say, who know the borders of freedom? Why are you not afraid of dictatorial rule and want a dictatorship to be repeated on women?

Abd al-Lami: We do not want to reintroduce dictatorial rule. That is a closed chapter. We must solve the problem of progressive and active women who were marginalized. We agree with them as I have already said. We agree with them as far as the will to improve the situation of Iraqi women who were oppressed for many years. So, I do agree with them in providing a woman with her human rights. Those [rights] are not in conflict with Islamic law, and that is our single concern.

RFI also interviewed Islamist activist Salama Sumaysim, who said she represented the voice of "moderate Islam."

Sumaysim: I want to calm [the liberal women] down. I, as an Islamic writer and researcher, do not see it as bad news if women are treated and defined according to the Islamic text [of the Koran]. I hope this issue is incorporated in the framework of really applying Islam. But I doubt Islamic practices will be introduced.

RFI: Do you not think that already the text [of the Koran] sets a clear discrimination between man and woman in terms of the "guardianship" [of men over women], inheritance, testimony [before court], marriage and divorce, etc.?

Sumaysim: This is how man has misused the text of the Koran. I do not say this is its absolute and final application. It is the application by men, the patriarchal application of the Koran and other texts, a mental product. It does not mean that the problem is in Islamic law.

RFI: But who will guarantee to us that this mentality, interpreting the religion arbitrarily so that it serves the interests of patriarchy, is no longer present here?

Sumaysim: I want to stress one point: this extreme attitude that leftist, liberal, and democratic forces have taken in handling these affairs only provokes an opposite extreme. I call for dialogue. Regarding these activists, whom I do not like to call "secularists" because I have a particular view on the problem of "secularism" but who oppose the application of Islamic law, why do they not gather with activists who support the application, or the practical implementation of terms, of Islamic law? Why do not they try to understand each other?

RFI: As you have called the leftists, secularists, and liberals to be "extreme," what about those who have been writing the draft constitution? How about those [women] whose views have been [transparent], beginning from their [Islamic] dressing and ending with the [Islamic] formulations that they want to set in the constitution?

Sumaysim: I refuse extremism in all forms.

RFI: So why have you labeled as extremists those who want to defend their rights?

Sumaysim: Through my work at the [state] Ministry for Women's Affairs, I have noticed one very regrettable phenomenon: those [secularist] women try to accuse all Islamic-oriented women equally, be they moderate or non-moderate. The problem is mainly that the term "secular" has come to be used in various contexts, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. "Secularism" does not mean detachment from religion. No, you can be a believer and a secularist, or, you do not want Islam be used politically. This is a right of every citizen. I believe that the prime human right is the freedom of belief. So how could I abstain from a particular religion?

RFI: How do you explain the fear of [liberal] women that their issues will be bound, or extradited, to religion?

Sumaysim: This has been a subject of misuse. I see in it an unjustified media war. There is an issue that some people want to impose on public opinion. There is, so to say, a conspiracy to push a bigger issue through. I do not see any problem between women's issues and religion. Stronger than that is the conspiracy where the woman has been misused as pretext.

RFI: Let us go back to the reality, to the draft constitution and the demands of Islamist versus liberal women. For long months, many called for incorporating international agreements as one of the sources of legislation, but they have not been incorporated in either of the two drafts published in Iraqi newspapers.

Sumaysim: This is a very important issue. The constitutional-drafting committee claimed that it had accepted these proposals. We have tried our best through NGOs, a declaration of intellectuals, and several [other] activities. I personally, as a private subject, have always demanded and called on them [the members of the constitutional-drafting committee]: Is it not possible to ensure the rights of women unless we apply the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights. I must ask: Where are experts with their opinions? When they consulted experts on constitution law, did not a single one of them remind them that there are international agreements, charters, conventions, and declarations valid since the establishment of the United Nations and ratified by all countries of the world?

RFI: Another issue is equality. Why have Islamic parties and blocs within the National Assembly taken a negative stance towards the principle of equality between man and woman?

Sumaysim: I, as an Islamist -- and that may be why I have been refused by Islamists themselves -- look at the idea of equality through the prism of the Koran that declares that God does not distinguish between people except according to a single measure which is the piety and good deeds. When God sees a good deed, He appreciates it irrespective of whether it has been done by a man or a woman [as the Koran states]. Almighty God does not care whether the person is a man or a woman, the important thing is the good deed. The good deed can be demonstrated in creativity and various achievements, in writing and all such activities. But if they consider themselves higher than Almighty God and focus on other factors...

RFI: How do you explain their [i.e. Islamic female activists'] call for inequality?

Sumaysim: The demands of those women are related to the programs of political parties. They are obliged to go out [in demonstrations] because they have to follow a political program. And, the political program is related to a seat in the parliament. Such a seat in the National Assembly is worth some $1,000 [in salary]. So this is very important.

RFI: What will the situation of women be like if Islamic law is applied in Iraq?

Sumaysim: The flowing garment under which Islamic law has been presented is the source that causes the fear. It would have been different had it been said that [the constitution] should not be in contradiction with Islam. But the term "Islamic law" [shari'a] has been the subject of various imposed interpretations, and this is very dangerous. With this, we will also enter a struggle for the correct understanding [of the Koran], a struggle that has been continuous since the first khalifas [Muhammad's successors in the leadership of the Islamic community after his death in 632 A.D.] until now. Only now has it started to affect the details of life as the life became diverse and globalization has interfered. If our destiny as people, as women, as children, as a society, the attitude to sciences and knowledge become drawn by this factor, this will be dangerous. (Translation by Petr Kubalek)

KURDS TAKING HARD-LINE STANCE ON CONSTITUTION. Kurdish leaders in Iraq have called for all of their demands to be met in the draft constitution, threatening that otherwise they will encourage voters in the three Kurdish provinces to vote down the document in October.

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani has led the call and has become increasingly vocal in recent weeks, even contending on 1 August that Kurds have the right to establish their own state. Therefore, he concluded, the other parties to the draft should be grateful that Kurds have not demanded more.

"What we are demanding is the least of rights, as our rights are more than this. There are [important] issues that cannot be negotiated, including the Kirkuk issue, natural resources, federalism, the peshmergas, and the right of the Kurdistan parliament to legislate," Baghdad's "Al-Dustur" on 3 August quoted Barzani as saying.

Barzani has kept a close watch on all Iraqi parliamentary proceedings and recalled Kurdish delegates on 1 August after the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance attempted to push through legislation on 30 July without allowing members time to review and discuss it. Shi'ite parliamentarian Sa'd Qandil reportedly submitted the legislation, which proposed dividing Iraq into electoral constituencies rather than regarding the entire country as one constituency as it was in the January election.

Barzani has also alleged that the Iraqi Independent Election Commission intends to somehow harm the Kurds, who, along with large numbers of Chaldo-Assyrians and Turkomans, were denied the opportunity to vote in some areas west of Mosul in January because ballots were never delivered (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 21 February 2005).

Among the initiatives recently undertaken by Kurds is the inclusion of a clause in the constitution that would allow Kurds to vote on independence in eight years. Sunni drafters in particular have objected to the clause. The issue is compounded for the Sunnis by the insistence of Shi'ite drafters on a clause that would allow for several governorates to unite as regions. Under the Transitional Administrative Law -- the interim constitution for Iraq drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority -- no more than three governorates may form a region.

The Kurdistan region currently comprises three governorates, but Kurds are seeking to redraw the boundaries of the region to include the oil-rich Kirkuk Governorate, a move opposed by Sunni Arabs and Turkomans who also live in Kirkuk. Shi'ite parliamentarian Husayn Shahristani told "Al-Hayat" on 31 July that Arabs would also oppose including Kirkuk in the Kurdistan region, saying they have only agreed on normalizing the security situation in Kirkuk.

Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) submitted a redrawn map to the Iraqi National Assembly for consideration in the new constitution in late July. The map includes Kirkuk and the towns of Badra and Jassan, located east of Al-Suwayrah (which is south of Baghdad) close to the Iranian border. KDP member Mullah Bakhtiyar told reporters that the map "is based on historical and geographical facts," adding, "We are determined to stick to this map," AP reported on 22 July.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its head, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, back the KDP's demands. PUK member and Iraqi Planning Minister Barham Salih said last week that he supports a boycott of the draft constitution should it fail to respect Kurdish basic rights.

The Kurds had objected to a Shi'ite proposal that would make Shari'a law the basic source of legislation in the new Iraq. That issue appears to have been resolved in recent days, with Shari'a being identified merely as "a" source of legislation.

But Talabani has taken a more diplomatic approach to resolving the issues. He told Al-Arabiyah television in a 25 July interview that Kurds might be willing to give up control of Kirkuk's oil to the federal government in exchange for normalization in the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 1 March 2005). The Iraqi president has also said that other issues, including the insistence of the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance that Iraq be officially renamed the Islamic Federal Iraqi Republic, would not be a sticking point in negotiations for the draft constitution.

Talabani has taken a stronger approach, however, to what he sees as an attempt by the Shi'ite-led administration to monopolize power. Talabani has been equally vocal in criticizing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's government for not moving forward on certain issues, most notably implementing change in Kirkuk.

Kurds also oppose attempts by the Shi'a to dissolve the peshmerga. Husayn Shahristani, deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, told "Al-Hayat" on 31 July that the peshmerga forces "cannot stay just like that" and must be dissolved or integrated into the Iraqi Army. Peshmerga forces are currently active outside the Kurdistan region in cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk, and Khanaqin.

But Kurds are not the only ones criticizing the al-Ja'fari's government. Iraqi Shi'ite leaders observing the developments from abroad have been equally critical.

A group of Shi'ite leaders in London told the "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 30 July that they hold al-Ja'fari's government responsible for the deterioration of security, services, and financial corruption. The leaders contended that al-Ja'fari's administration does not have the experience and has no connection to the streets of Iraq.

One leader, Abd al-Husayn al-Mu'mini, contended that Baghdad has no control over the majority of state affairs. "The majority of cities in southern and central Iraq, apart from Baghdad, are under the control of the political parties and ruled by the militia of these parties," al-Mu'mini said. In northern Iraq, Kurdistan is under the control of the Kurds who are enjoying an almost independent rule, and their peshmerga militias are in control of the security situation there. Whatever else is left of al-Ja'fari's control is actually mostly under the control of U.S. forces.

Shi'ite political activist and Islamic scholar Iyad Jamal al-Din criticized what he viewed as the Shi'ite religious authorities' interference in politics in an interview with the daily published on 28 July, calling it dangerous to exploit religious legitimacy in politics. He said he hoped that the constitution would support a secular state. "A secular regime is a guarantee of the freedom of the religious establishment and other institutions. It is a guarantee of the freedom of political parties and individuals," al-Din said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. AMBASSADOR ANNOUNCES SEVEN-POINT PLAN FOR COUNTRY. In his first major speech since assuming his diplomatic post two weeks ago, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad announced that a seven-point plan has been reached with Iraqi leaders to address

Khalilzad said that he and Iraqi leaders discussed "a set of ideas about what's needed to set Iraq on the right trajectory." The plan calls for a national compact enshrined in the constitution; the isolation and defeat of terrorists and hardcore Ba'athists; encouraging the region's leaders to address problems in a cooperative spirit and to pressure those who continue to foment instability; improving the capacity of Iraqi ministries; increasing economic opportunities; the carrying out of successful elections; and mobilizing greater international support for Iraq.

"We have already launched five major task forces [with the Iraqi government] to move forward on key issues. These include efforts to implement joint plans on overall security, coordinating reconstruction, managing fiscal demands, infrastructure security, and resolving the [unclear] issues," Khalilzad said.

"Terrorists are moving into Iraq through Syria. Leaders of hardcore Ba'athist insurgents reside there. Terrorists and insurgents are trained in Syria and funding goes through Syria. Syrian government media are broadcasting anti-Iraq propaganda. The Syrian government must take action to halt these activities or risk new pressures."

One of the biggest challenges facing Iraqis is overcoming the loss of trust among the communities, the ambassador observed, adding: "This underlies current political and sectarian tensions. In part, it also underlies the insurgency." In order to overcome this legacy, Iraqis would need to build trust across communities, including the building of "truly national institutions" that are "not instruments of revenge or fiefdom of patronage of one group or another."

On the issue of terrorism, Khalilzad said that Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group and former Ba'athists are "seeking to pull more Iraqis into their terrorist networks." Khalilzad said: "Choosing this path would be fatal.... Protracted violence would lead their most talented people to go abroad, destroy educational opportunities for their children as schools close or do not operate in ways that they should. Reconstruction would become difficult and these circumstances would create fertile ground for the growth of extremism that would further impoverish the region. I warn Iraqis in central and western Iraq to avoid falling in the trap laid by their enemies," he said.

Offering a "legitimate alternative," Khalilzad challenged Iraqis in these areas to join in a national compact "enshrined in the constitution that protects the rights of all communities," adding that the United States is "committed to supporting Iraqis who seek to realize this vision." Khalilzad noted the predicament of Iraqis in these Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq who want to have a voice and place in the new Iraq and are seeking a political role in the face of intimidation and great risk to themselves. To this end, he pledged to "work to provide security" for those who seek to join the national compact.

The ambassador said that the plan to build up the Iraqi security forces is a "strategy first to win over the people and then to isolate and destroy the enemy." An essential part of the plan, the ambassador announced the intention of multinational forces to hand over control of specific areas of Iraq to Iraqi security forces and withdraw coalition troops.

RFI asked Khalilzad for more specifics on the plan, but he declined to identify what cities and towns would be handed over first. "We are working to build up Iraqi capabilities so that the security that is needed to be provided, is provided by the Iraqi forces as soon as possible. But we know that that takes time. Therefore we're working through this joint committee that I talked about as to how this transition from the coalition...could take place, that Iraqis take more and more responsibility for security in those areas. And we're going to develop an integrated, agreed upon, prudent plan of action on how to move forward and this is the work of this joint committee that I talked about."

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters in Baghdad on 1 August that Al-Diwaniyah, Karbala, Al-Najaf, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Samawah will likely be among the first cities in southern Iraq to be handed over. Al-Rubay'i added that he and Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi would represent Iraq in joint committee meetings with the United States.

The ambassador singled out Iran and Syria as states that are "engaged in unhelpful activities" and are not doing enough to contribute to the security of Iraq, adding that the United States intends to help shape a more favorable regional environment.

Regarding Syria, he said: "Terrorists are moving into Iraq through Syria. Leaders of hardcore Ba'athist insurgents reside there. Terrorists and insurgents are trained in Syria and funding goes through Syria. Syrian government media are broadcasting anti-Iraq propaganda. The Syrian government must take action to halt these activities or risk new pressures."

Iran, he said, is working along two contradictory tracks. "On the one hand, Tehran works with the new Iraq; on the other there is movement across its borders of people and material used in violent acts against Iraq. We welcome good relations between Iraq and all its neighbors. But activities inconsistent with such relations must stop."

Khalilzad also stressed the U.S. government's intention to build up the capabilities of Iraqi ministries. In addition to improving the capacity to operate and manage projects, the ambassador said the United States would decentralize part of the reconstruction process by working with provincial governments to fund projects that meet local needs.

The ambassador also stressed the need to expand private-sector opportunities, saying: "I will work with Iraqi political and business leaders to do more, including expansion of credit, increasing the use of Iraqi contractors in reconstruction, and opposing corruption."

As part of this plan, Khalilzad vowed to do more to encourage the international community to become more involved in Iraq. "Iraqis need help in this period, just as other great nations in Europe and Asia have needed it after the end of major wars or the fall of totalitarian regimes," he said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)