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Iraq's Constitutional Accord

Tuesday, March 2, 2004; Page A20
Tyrus Cobb

IRAQ'S GOVERNING Council offered an answer yesterday to those who predicted that the country's various ethnic and religious communities would be incapable of agreement on the country's future. The interim constitution they announced in Baghdad after three exhausting days of negotiations offers a plausible framework for a democratic and federalized Iraq that defines itself as an Islamic country but embraces political and religious freedom. The document appears to have some important holes, and it could be challenged by conservative religious leaders, either now or when a permanent constitution is drafted in a year. Still, the agreement marks an important step toward the Bush administration's goal of stabilizing Iraq under a sovereign government this year, and a hopeful sign about the willingness of Iraq's emerging political class to embrace pragmatism and compromise.

The boast by U.S. and Iraqi officials that the Iraqi charter is unprecedented in the Middle East is only partly correct; sadly, several Arab autocracies, including Egypt, have written constitutions that also embrace Western principles of liberal democracy. Words on paper don't always determine practice in the region, which is why the decisive political tests in Iraq still lie in the future. It is nevertheless important that the various factions on the governing council agreed to guarantee the rights of speech, assembly and the press, and that they provided for an independent court system with protections for the accused. Even more significant was the deal struck on the role of religion in the state: Islam will be the official religion but only one source of law.

While the document provides that laws cannot impinge on Islamic tenets, they also cannot violate the civil rights spelled out in the charter.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday that they believed the constitutional formula would be acceptable to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious leader whose opposition could undermine the nascent order. If so, Iraq will take an important step toward stability -- one that comes at the end of a month marked by the lowest U.S. casualty total during the past year, the return of Iraq's oil and electricity production to prewar levels, and the successful involvement of the United Nations in forging a consensus on elections.

The political and logistical obstacles that must be overcome in the next few months remain daunting, beginning with the creation of an interim government and a plan for how U.S. and Iraqi forces will provide security after the scheduled transfer of power on June 30. But if yesterday's accord signals a willingness by Iraq's leaders to step back from maximalist demands and recognize the legitimate interests of other religious and ethnic groups, the prospect that Iraq will manage to turn a corner this year will be considerably brighter.

2004 The Washington Post Company


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