Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Iraqis now facing the crucial test: a new constitution

Sunday's election was a milestone for Iraq's attempt at democratization. But now the country faces the complex task of balancing diversity in a credible founding document

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , BASRA, IRAQ

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday's election, the crucial issue for Iraq over the coming months -- apart from the future of the insurgency and whether foreign troops give a timetable for leaving -- will be the process of writing Iraq's first democratic constitution.

The 275 members chosen Sunday for the National Assembly will be in charge of the process. Will the new constitution enshrine Sharia law? Will it protect women's property and divorce rights?

Will it maintain the system of federalism that was written into Iraq's temporary constitution by the Americans a year ago? If it does not, will this provoke the Kurds in northern Iraq to break away?

The assembly also has the task of appointing a three-person presidency, which will pick the prime minister.

If Sunday night's early indications of strong support for the incumbent Iyad Allawi in the largely Shiite southern provinces is confirmed in Baghdad and even those Sunni areas which voted, he will be assured of staying in the job. He took a certain risk in standing on his own ticket rather than seeking to ally himself to the Kurds and Shiites with whom he is in coalition in the present government.

But he decided to put his own reputation to the test, a gamble which appears to have paid off. He had the advantage of incumbency and in recent days many Iraqis interviewed by reporters praised him for raising pensions and salaries for teachers and other government workers as well as the police.

Classic Populism

In a country of huge unemployment this classic populism may have been as significant as his image as a "strong leader for a safe country," as his campaign slogan put it. The prime minister was also helped by massive name-recognition in a huge field where most candidates had little chance or time to get themselves known, especially in conditions of such heavy insecurity which made campaigning almost impossible everywhere outside the Kurdish areas and a few cities in the Shiite south.

Television coverage became the crucial weapon. Allawi was constantly in the news, and he also dominated the paid advertising on the satellite channels. What funding he had from US sources, official or unofficial, is not clear but he is certainly Washington's favorite.

Even if the Shiite religious parties were to get more seats than Allawi in the assembly, they would probably help to keep him in power as a gesture to the Americans. Allawi is a Shiite so from that point of view he is acceptable to the Shiite clerics. None of the big religious parties is in a mood to confront the Americans. The best-known radical Shiite, Moqtada al-Sadr, was not running.

The issue of Shiite dominance can be exaggerated. They are the biggest population group in Iraq but it does not follow that they want to enforce a Shiite line -- even if there were one. They are deeply split. It is mainly a matter of symbolism to have a Shiite prime minister after decades of rule by leaders from the Sunni minority, whether it was the king imposed by the British, or later, Saddam Hussein.

The real issue among the

Shiites, and it is shared by Sunni moderates, is whether religious or secular politicians get their values enshrined in the new constitution. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, certainly sets more store on getting the right constitution than on who forms the government.

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