Iraq constitution: Support women’s and democratic rights

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:27

By Clive Bradley

The deadline for agreement on Iraq’s new constitution is 15 August, after which it should go to a national referendum. But as we go to press, it looks unlikely the various factions involved in the negotiations will have agreement by then.

Iraq’s election in January of this year — the first in over 40 years — resulted in a parliament divided along sectarian lines, and dominated by the largest Shi’a party, which is close to Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The Kurdish parties are the second largest group. Sunni Iraqis, who were dominant from the time of British colonialism and under Saddam Hussein’s regime, wield little influence — the Sunni “resistance” boycotted the election — but efforts have been made by the majority parties to incorporate Sunni representatives into the talks. Nevertheless, the political faultlines have been predictable.

The key arguments are over whether Iraq should be a federal state, and the role of Islam.

The Kurds, long a brutally repressed minority, want a federal Iraq in which they have considerable autonomy. Some Shi’a, too, are said to favour federalism, which would give autonomy to the mainly Shi’a south. (One system of federalism would simply be to give autonomy to each province).

A big issue is the role of oil revenues. Politicians in the south want oil money — when the oil industry starts to revive — to be distributed locally. Some Shi’a — who favour more weight being given to the Baghdad government they dominate — and most Sunnis – who live in the part of Iraq without oil — want oil revenues to be centrally controlled.

There is also and issue over the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Many Kurds want Kirkuk to be included in Kurdistan. Others point to the multi-ethnic nature of the city, in which Kurds are only about a third of the population — although Kurds point out that Saddam Hussein had a policy of forced “Arabisation”, driving Kurds out and replacing them with Arabs. Kirkuk is one of the most volatile places in northen Iraq, with simmering communal conflict. Recently there have been demonstrations by Kurdish nationalists in Irbil, demanding their rights be recognised in the permanent constitution. They want the return of Kurds expelled by Saddam Hussein and the resettlement of Arabs.

Many Sunnis boycotted the elections, in part because of fear of the inevitable Shi’a majority in the new parliament. Contrary to the romantic claims of some on the international left, the Sunni “resistance” consists largely of ex-Ba’thists and radical Islamists (only a few of whom seem to be foreign), motivated by sectarian interests.

But without the involvement of at least a significant layer of the Sunni population, the fear is that Iraq will divide along religious and ethnic lines — with the Kurds in the north seceding, perhaps some parts of the Shi’a south, too — amid terrible blood-letting. The negotiators have been anxious to keep Sunni representatives on board. But the conflicting interests of the various groups have proved a serious obstacle.

The majority party, aligned with Sistani, is Shi’a sectarian to some degree, and consists of Islamist parties. The two largest of these are the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), very closely linked to Iran, and the Da’wa Party of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. In particular through the weight in the government of Sciri — but also other forces including former darling of the US neo-cons Ahmed Chalabi — Iran has considerable influence in Iraq today. It is one of the paradoxes of occupied Iraq that it has given a new lease of life to the neighbouring Islamic Republic in Tehran.

Some parties to the talks about the Iraq constitution want to call the new state the “Islamic Republic of Iraq”. The Kurdish parties, and other more secular forces, are fiercely opposed to this. Equally in dispute is the centrality of Islam itself — whether it should be “the source of legitimacy” for the law, or just one of them.

This raises, of course, threats to the position of women. Already, the Personal Status Law of 1959, which guaranteed equal status — and over which there were fierce struggles last year — has been abolished in effect: the draft constitution “protects the basic rights of women... in accordance with the Islamic shari’a...” One draft which has been circulated says the country “should preserve the noble values of the tribe, which coincide with shari’a.” The “noble values of the tribe” include honour killings

An article in the draft of Chapter Two gives any sect (presumably of any religion) the freedom to abide by their own family laws. Women’s groups have protested that this gives enormous power to religious courts and the male heads of families.

The draft constitution seen by this writer does include “the freedom to establish... political parties and unions,” and to join them. It is not clear what this means for the Ba’thist anti-union legislation still in effect.

If a constitution can be agreed on schedule, it will be put to a referendum in October; and then there should be parliamentary elections in December. It is very important for almost all parties to this process – barring the fascistic terrorist groups, who don’t believe in democracy but want one kind of dictatorship or another — that it stay on track.

It is important to the main Iraqi political parties, and to the British and US occupying forces that a government can be elected by the end of this year which carries real popular legitimacy. Probably, for this reason, compromises will be found. The Kurds will allow Islam to be a greater source of legislative authority than they would prefer in return for federalism; the Sunnis will be offered guarantees; and so on.

It is important to workers’ organisations, also. A collapse of the political process, and some degree of civil war or sectarian/ethnic fighting, would not be good conditions in which to build unions and other democratic organisations. But the workers’ movement should, of course, keep its independence, its right to criticise, and fight for the most democratic possible constitution. And the labour, democratic, and women’s organisations which are campaigning to preserve women’s and other democratic rights need our urgent support.

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