Iraq women fear loss of freedoms in constitution


IRAQ: Iraq's leaders vowed to unveil a draft constitution today after marathon talks edged the country's ethnic and religious rivals towards a potentially historic compromise.

A special sitting of the parliament has been called in Baghdad for this evening to review the text, hours before a midnight deadline for approval. But there is no guarantee that the draft will be ready in time, as haggling continues on outstanding disputes related to federalism and the role of Islam.

Senior negotiators who gathered at President Jalal Tabalani's residence to paper over the cracks signalled that there would be an 11th hour deal today. "At this [ parliamentary] meeting the draft constitution is expected to be delivered," said Nasser al-Awadi, a Sunni Arab member of the constitutional drafting committee. Kurdish and Shia negotiators echoed his optimism.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told ABC news: "The Iraqis tell me that they can finish it and they will finish it tomorrow."

If so, the US president, George Bush, is likely to welcome the draft as proof that Washington's timetable for political progress is on track, despite the continued violence which claimed the lives of six American soldiers and more than a dozen Iraqis at the weekend. A grave less than two weeks old, with 30 bodies, was also found in Baghdad.

US and Iraqi officials billed the new constitution as a way to stabilise the country and drain support from the Sunni-driven insurgency. After parliamentary approval, it is to be voted on in a referendum in October, paving the way for December elections.

There is consensus that the new state should have an independent judiciary, a legislature and an executive with a powerful prime minister and ceremonial president.

It is unclear to what extent Islam will be recognised as a source of law - a battleground between Shia conservatives linked to Iran and moderates and liberals who want strong safeguards for women and religious minorities.

Women's rights advocates mounted an 11th-hour push last night to dilute the role of Islam and safeguard their freedoms in the draft constitution. They mobilised in Baghdad to steel liberal and secular members of the drafting committee for a showdown against religious conservatives.

With crucial parts of the draft still undecided, it was unclear if sharia law would override the civil law that governs areas such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

Shia clerics and politicians vowed to make Islam one of the main sources of law, moving Iraq closer to the theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia. If they succeed, the consequences will be dire, said Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of the drafting committee. "For women it would be a disaster."

Women members of parliament and non-governmental organisations lobbied potential allies at the convention centre in Baghdad's green zone. A cluster formed around Wael Latif, a legal adviser to the constitutional committee, warning him that negotiators would not be forgiven if this generation of women ended up more oppressed than their mothers.

A 1959 law blending western legal principles with sharia law gave Iraq one of the Middle East's more enlightened attitudes to family issues. Saddam Hussein kept the law and women enjoyed a measure of equality, even during the 1990s when the secular dictator flirted with Islam.

Since the US-led invasion, however, conservative Shias, oppressed for decades under Saddam, have stoked a politically charged religious revival, which is especially strong in the south. Even in the capital it is now rare to see women in public without headscarves, or driving on their own. - (Guardian)