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Sunnis, Secular Iraqis See Conflicts in Constitution


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

For weeks, Iraqi politicians have been trying to hammer out a document that will form the foundation of Iraq. Getting a constitution is a key step in restoring order after the tyranny of Saddam, the US-led invasion and a relentless insurgency. At last, the contours of the constitution are emerging. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Baghdad.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It's not finished, but at least there is now a document. It was presented to Iraq's National Assembly Monday, though not voted on. But officials say the odds are the final version, if it's ever agreed, will be close to this.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (US Ambassador to Iraq): This constitution, with regard to rights, is a synthesis, is a synthesis between Islamic traditions of this country with the universal principles of democracy and human rights.

REEVES: That's US ambassador to Iraq's Zalmay Khalilzad. He's played a prominent role in getting Iraq's fractious political and ethnic leaders to reach this point. Finding that balance, the synthesis he describes, has been critical, especially when it comes to Islam. The draft defines Islam as a main source of legislation and the country's official religion. It also states no law should contradict the basic principles of Islam. But, says Khalilzad, there are counterweights.

Mr. KHALILZAD: At the same time, the same constitution says no law can be against the principles of democracy, the same constitution says no law can be against human rights enshrined in this constitution. And there is a set of rights that are listed in this constitution.

REEVES: These provisions haven't allayed the concerns of some secular Iraqis, including women. Their underlying fear is that the ground is being laid, with the help of the US, for a country dominated by Shiite Islamic clerics, religious authorities with the power to adjudicate over personal issues like divorce and inheritance where, under Shariah law, women would have fewer rights than men. However, the draft, somewhat unclearly, appears to allow individuals to choose whether to submit to religious or civil law. Khalilzad says at one stage there was a proposal to establish a constitutional court.

Mr. KHALILZAD: There were concerns that the court might be a kind of religious court checking whether the constitution is consistent with the Sharia. That was ultimately decided to be eliminated. Instead, that responsibility for constitutionality of laws was given to the supreme court.

REEVES: A federal supreme court, presided over by judges with expertise on Sharia law, but also, Khalilzad says, by others specializing in human rights and democracy. But the job's not done. Sunni-Arab negotiators have so far rejected the draft. Their largest concern is about the terms under which Iraq will be a federation, although the Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Jafari, says this is broadly agreed.

Prime Minister IBRAHIM AL-JAFARI (Shiite Prime Minister): (Through Translator) In principle, all the political parties have agreed that federalism is a reality.

REEVES: Sunni-Arab negotiators dispute this. They've accepted Kurdish autonomy, but not the possibility of a rich, southern Shiite federal region or a weak central government in Baghdad. One Sunni negotiator says there are still many unresolved issues. US officials hope these will be settled over the next few days. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says disputes can be fixed later, and he hopes those with grievances will say...

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Well, I really don't like it. It's not perfect, but it's good enough. And, by golly, if we have to amend it, lots of other countries have amended their constitution. If there's something we made a mistake on, we'll just have to fix it later.

REEVES: There is another form of redress. If the constitution gets through Iraq's National Assembly, it goes to a public referendum. If at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it by a two-thirds majority, it'll be thrown out. Reports are coming in that Sunni-Arabs have been lining up to register as electors, saying they intend to vote no. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.