The US-appointed Interim Governing Council of Iraq has a agreed a "fundamental law" which establishes a temporary constitution, designed to enable the occupation Coalition Provisional Authority to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government at the beginning of July this year. The law says that elections will be held by the end of 2004 or early in 2005.
The law calls for pluralism, protection of religious rights, for women to be 25% of the transitional parliament, an independent judiciary, but for Islam to be the official religion of the state. Islamist groups are heavily represented on the IGC; those outside it also - principally the followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's foremost Shi'a cleric, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the most radical Shi'a leader - demand that Islamic law be the basis of a future constitution.
This looks set to be the most public of the contested issues over the coming months. The apparent consensus on the IGC over the "fundamental law" is misleading, because all its stipulations are temporary. The real fight will come when the permanent constitution is drafted, and in preparation for that time.
Islamic reactionaries have suffered a significant recent defeat. Last year the IGC issued Resolution 137 which repealed a personal status law in effect with some amendment by the regime of Saddam Hussein since 1959, replacing it with the shari'a, Islamic law - which would have given local religious leaders enormous power and had disastrous consequences for women, in particular. (Islamic law allows for girls to be married at nine, the enforced wearing of the hijab, so-called "temporary marriage" - which is, in effect, sanctioned prostitution - and stoning for adultery). Following widespread protests by women's groups, the IGC last week abrogated Resolution 137.
It seems many of the Islamist groups on the IGC - which include the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Party, and the Islamic Party, a group linked historically, at least, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (i.e., a Sunni group) - are very unhappy with this decision. US civilian administrator Paul Bremer recently made promises that Iraq would have a secular constitution - though, of course, since part of the current process is handing sovereignty to Iraqis, and assuming this proceeds, what Paul Bremer says about it won't make much difference.
Muqtada al-Sadr called for "rebellion" against Bremer for these staments, even if he himself is "martyred". The retreat from introducing Islamic law will certainly be seen as a defeat by the radical groups, who will rally their forces. Al-Sadr has been doing so in the predominantly Kurdish north - far from his main bases in Baghdad and further south. The Sadrists held a demonstration in Kirkuk - complete with 2,000 armed Army of the Mahdi, the group's militia - last Saturday (28 February). The Kurdish nationalist parties did not object to the march, as long as it was peaceful, which evidently it was. But the appearance of such forces in the strongholds of the more secular Kurdish groups is an ominous sign (the Kurdish regional parliament had already rejected Resolution 137).
Ethnic and religious-sectarian tensions are growing throughout Iraq. (In Kirkuk the faultline here is unclear: about a third of the city's population is Turkmen - speaking a variety of Turkish - who are mainly Shi'a. Juan Cole, a leading American academic expert on Islam in Iraq, says he doesn't know if Muqtada al-Sadr's group has a base in this community or not.
The "fundamental law" in any case does not resolve the largest problem facing the US/UK occupation, which is precisely how to hand sovereignty over to an Iraqi government. Bremer had proposed a process which would involve the election of a parliament through a system not of direct elections but of local caucuses consisting of tribal leaders and others (academics, etc.; though, obviously, traditional leaders would hold most power). What this did not take into account at all was the opposition of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, whose followers mobilised in their tens of thousands in Basra and Baghdad at the beginning of the year: Sistani declared any government not based on direct elections to be illegal.
Bremer has backtracked, in an urgent attempt to appease Sistani - the most quietist clerical leader, but also the most authoritative (he has the position known as "object of emulation"), with the widest base. Sistani still refuses to endorse anything less than direct elections; but there have been no more demonstrations. Meanwhile, the old plan has been ditched. No new one has been officially declared, though the thinking seems to be to expand the Interim Governing Council - ideally, presumably, to include at least Sistani and perhaps Muqtada. Both these Shi'a leaders were offered positions on the IGC when it was established, but refused.
The US, which launched the war on Iraq in open contempt of the United Nations, has turned to the UN to intercede with Sistani. The UN has declared elections before July to be unviable (the UN representative in Iraq is Algerian, and may be mindful of elections in his own country in 1992, where an imminent Islamist victory led to a military coup and then civil war).
Direct elections are in the interests of the Shi'a, who are perhaps 65% of the population. Equally, a managed and orderly transition to Iraqi sovereignty is in their interests. In the mainly Sunni central part of Iraq, violent armed "resistance" has grown enormously over recent months. Many of the "resistance" seem to be Sunni-sectarian Islamist groups who want to prevent domination by the Shi'a majority. Among these are the Army of the Helpers of Muhammed, which has been linked to the bomb attacks on the offices of the Kurdish nationalist parties in Irbil which left 60 dead. It is not impossible that Sistani will compromise.
Ethnic tensions in the north are a bad sign, too. The Kurds' insistence on regional autonomy is agreed in the "fundamental law". But battles - and fierce ones - loom. Kurdish nationalists want Kirkuk, which is rich in oilfields, to be in the Kurdish autonomous area. Other Iraqis oppose this; and the 300,000 Turkmen in the city (which has a bloody history of communal conflict) do not want to be incorporated into a Kurdish mini-state.
By Clive Bradley