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Oct. 15 constitutional vote is next Iraqi challenge

BAGHDAD (BP)–Oct. 15 is the next major juncture on the road to democracy in Iraq, now that political leaders there have completed the nation’s first draft of a constitution in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

The 39-page document emerged from three months of negotiations within a constitutional committee dominated by representatives of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish populations.

President Bush commended the constitution writers, saying, “Their example is an inspiration to all who share the universal values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law…. Their efforts follow the bravery of the Iraqis who voted by the millions to elect a transitional government in January.”

According to guidelines set by Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law, which has governed the country since March 2004, the draft constitution will face a referendum vote Oct. 15. Iraqis have until Sept. 1 to register to vote, except in Anbar province, where insurgent violence has led to a Sept. 7 extension.

Only Iraqis living in-country will be allowed to vote “yes” or “no” on the draft constitution, and copies of the document written in Arabic and Kurdish will be distributed for review in their monthly ration allocation beginning in September, according to the Associated Press.

Constitutional committee members missed the original Aug. 15 deadline set for the completion of the draft document, as well as an Aug. 22 extension. But after a phone call from Bush Aug. 25, leaders pushed through with negotiations and presented the draft to the National Assembly Aug. 28.

The constitution, in its present form, declares that all Iraqis are equal before the law without regard to gender, ethnicity or religion. It declares Islam the official religion of Iraq and says no law may be passed which contradicts the principles of the religion or the principles of democracy. It also guarantees “full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices.”

“We the people of Iraq, newly arisen from our disasters and looking with confidence to the future through a democratic, federal, republican system, are determined — men and women, old and young — to respect the rule of law, reject the policy of aggression, pay attention to women and their rights, the elderly and their cares, the children and their affairs, spread the culture of diversity and defuse terrorism,” the constitution’s preamble states.

Though Shiites and Kurds strongly favor the document, displeasure exists among the nation’s minority Sunni population and many are urging Iraqis to reject it in the referendum vote.

A major point of contention is the constitution’s provision of a federal state in which provinces have significant powers rather than a strong central government akin to Hussein’s reign. Sunnis fear provinces dominated by Shiites or Kurds could sway the nation in the wrong direction, according to an assessment by the Associated Press.

“Don’t follow constitutions of the infidels,” influential Sunni cleric Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaei told a mosque congregation Aug. 26, according to AP. “We don’t want a constitution that brings the curse of separation and division to this country.”

But Kurds and Shiites recall decades of oppression wrought by Hussein and his Sunni-dominated dictatorship, AP said, and they believe federalism is the best defense against a repeat of such corruption.

Another complaint Sunnis had about the draft was that it outlawed members of Hussein’s Baath Party from serving in the new government, but a last-minute compromise resulted in such people being permitted as long as the party’s “Saddamist” branch and symbols were kept out.

Sunnis are rushing to register to vote in the referendum, The Washington Post reported, encouraged by the same leaders who urged them to boycott the January elections. Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law provides that if just 100 voters nationwide turned out Oct. 15 and a majority voted “yes,” the constitution would become law. But if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the draft, it will be defeated. Sunnis are hoping they can muster enough votes to reject the constitution.

“The United States congratulates the Iraqi people on completing the process of drafting a constitution,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement Aug. 28. “This event marks another critical step forward along the pathway to a free, prosperous and democratic Iraq. Both the process for producing the document and the text of the draft constitution show a shared commitment to a common future and identity for all Iraqis.

“Citizens of democracies around the globe recognize a vital element of free societies is to resolve disparate views through political compromise,” Rice added. “We see this fact of democracy emerging in Iraq today. We also see in Iraq’s draft constitution a foundation for a democratic system in which all voices may be heard, human rights are protected, rule of law is respected, and women are full political partners.”

In expectation of intensified insurgent attacks, the United States is increasing the number of troops in Iraq leading up to the Oct. 15 referendum and the Dec. 15 elections to choose a new parliament if the constitution is passed.

“We can expect such atrocities to increase in the coming months because the enemy knows that its greatest defeat lies in the expression of free people, and freely enacted laws, and at the ballot box,” Bush said Aug. 28. “We will stand with the Iraqi people. It’s in our interest to stand with the Iraqi people. It’s in our interest to lay the foundation of peace. We’ll help them confront this barbarism, and we will triumph over the terrorist’s dark ideology of hatred and fear.”

Bush added that he wants Americans, who are growing increasingly pessimistic about the efforts to rebuild Iraq, to remember that their own constitution was not unanimously received.

“Some delegates at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 refused to sign it, and the draft was vigorously debated in every state, and the outcome was not assured until all the votes were counted,” he said.

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  • Erin Curry