Global Policy Forum

Iraq Constitution Has Checks and Balances


By Jim Krane

Associated Press
March 1, 2004

Under the interim constitution approved Monday, Iraq will be a federalist state with two official languages, a prime minister who runs the country's daily affairs and a president who can launch a war - but only with the approval of parliament. "No one has absolute power," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi. "After what we've been through, we're afraid of that."

Iraq's U.S.-picked Governing Council spent two months wrestling with the interim constitution, which will become law of the land for a year or more, until an elected national assembly writes a replacement.

"For the next 100 years this day will be mentioned as one of the most important in Iraq's history," said council member Samir Shaker Mahmoud. "This will be remembered in the annals of history as a turning point in relations between the state and citizens in this country and in the region."

The precedent-setting constitution, which is to be signed by top American administrator L. Paul Bremer and made public Wednesday, has been described as one of the most liberal in the region. Some aspects, such as the goal of a parliament with women as 25 percent of its members, were declared even more progressive than those in the United States.

The charter has a 13-article bill of rights, including protections for free speech, religious expression, assembly and due process. It enshrines Islam as the state religion, but not the sole basis for law. The Kurdish language becomes an official language alongside Arabic.

The document envisions Iraq as a federalist state along the lines of Canada, Brazil and India, with considerable authority handed to individual regions. Iraq will be governed by a directly elected national assembly whose members then choose a president, a prime minister and a pair of deputy presidents, Qanbar said.

The president will make decisions on the advice of two vice presidents, and will share power with a prime minister and Cabinet, Qanbar said. The prime minister will be vested with executive power, but not over the armed forces, which will be commanded by the president. The president will also wield a veto over the national assembly's resolutions, Qanbar said.

Nationwide elections to select an Iraqi national assembly are supposed to take place before Feb. 1, 2005. Later in 2005, Iraqis are expected to vote on a permanent constitution drawn up by the national assembly. "I am sure that some principals included in this law will also be in the permanent constitution," Council member Adnan Pachachi said.

The charter does not say what kind of government will run the country after June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition hands over power. Pachachi said the form of the new administration will be included in an annex to the interim constitution once agreement is reached.

Not everyone was happy with the document when the long night of wrangling ended before dawn Monday. Iraq's Kurds were hoping to retain control of their militia and win autonomy over a larger portion of Iraq than the three northern states they currently dominate. Instead, autonomy was left unresolved. And militia groups are supposed to be integrated into an Iraqi army or the police.

"We want ethnic federalism... We are not Arabs," said Noshirwan Mustafa, member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's political bureau. "There was American pressure on the two Kurdish parties to postpone these thorny issues until general elections are held in Iraq. I think the Kurdish leadership gave in to the Americans more than they should have."

That the charter was produced at all was partly a product of the framers' understanding that they would make history if they succeeded, an eventuality that required a strong dose of compromise. "We fought our way inch by inch toward the center," Mahmoud said. "And then, at 4 a.m. ... or thereabouts, we got there."

Other losers in the interim charter are the thousands of ex-members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, the top four ranks of which are banned from running for elected office, Qanbar said.

Candidates for the national assembly cannot have been members of the Baath Party for the past 10 years, nor have taken part in the brutal repression of the Shiite and Kurdish communities, Qanbar said.

The future president of Iraq, Qanbar said, must have an "unimpeachable reputation."

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