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Iraq's New Constitution Goes a Long Way but Still Falls Short

March 12, 2004|Bathsheba Crocker

The soap opera of getting the Iraqi transitional constitution signed made for great theater and ended, fortunately, with all 25 members of Iraq's Governing Council signing the document into law. But no one should mistake this success as anything more than a small step on the very long road to a worthy future for Iraq.

Three elements are missing from the document -- clarity, legitimacy and security.

The transitional constitution is fairly impressive. It contains a bill of rights that compares well with our own: It makes all Iraqis equal under the law and guarantees freedom of speech, press, assembly, movement, religion, privacy, security, education, healthcare and social security.

The law envisions that an elected national assembly will take office in January. The assembly will be Iraq's transitional legislature, responsible for drafting a permanent constitution. There will be a power-sharing government, with a three-member presidency council, a prime minister and a council of ministers. The law delineates a separation of powers and a decentralized government. Minority rights will be protected by the power to veto the draft permanent constitution.

For all these noble goals, the document falls short in key areas.

First, it says nothing about the process for establishing the interim government that will assume sovereignty June 30. The U.S. plans for how the turnover will take place remain vague, and the United Nations is resisting calls that it should figure out what the Americans can't.

Second, the Iraqi people have had no input in drafting this constitution. It is critical to achieve broad Iraqi buy-in to a law that sets out citizens' rights and the national form of government for the next 18 months, and all the more so because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential cleric, has already questioned the law's legitimacy.

Third, the document does little to address security issues. It does not include an agreement for the stationing of U.S. forces in Iraq after June 30. And its attempt to finesse the thorny question of militias by branding them illegal -- except as provided by federal law -- leaves open the likelihood that various factions will continue to maintain well-armed paramilitary groups.

What should be done to give this document a chance?

The U.S. and the Governing Council must clarify what is going to happen on June 30. Iraqis need to be genuinely involved in selecting an interim government; this cannot be seen as a means to keep the Governing Council in power after transfer of sovereignty.

Here at home, the White House must stop the endless battling between the State and Defense departments. The latest news is that the Pentagon will manage the bulk of U.S. reconstruction contracts even after the State Department takes over U.S. oversight from the Coalition Provisional Authority in July. It is hard to see how the State Department will have the lead role, with 105,000 U.S. troops still on the ground and Defense in effective control of the $18.6 billion in reconstruction funds. Clarity is also needed about the rules of engagement for U.S. and other foreign forces. In the event of a rise in sectarian violence or civil war, U.S. and Iraqi citizens deserve to know what the coalition's response will be.

Iraqis urgently need to establish the legitimacy of the interim constitution. This means an aggressive national campaign to explain its provisions to Iraqis. It is crucial not only that Shiites buy into the law's tenets but also that Sunnis and former Baath Party members view opting into the political system rather than continued violence as their most viable means of survival. Acceptance by the U.N. Security Council could help ensure the document's viability.

The United States must also address the pervasive lack of security in Iraq. Coalition troops need to have a significant presence in Iraqi communities. Iraq's security forces are not up to the task of providing security. They need better training and equipment and will continue to need oversight for several years.

Finally, unless the United States shows that it will play the enforcer role in Iraq for years to come, no matter which administration takes office in November, those who want to cause trouble will simply wait us out. Without this commitment, Iraq's interim constitution and transition toward democracy won't amount to more than nice aspirations.

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Bathsheba Crocker, a former State Department official, co- directs the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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