Published on Monday, August 22, 2005 by the Guardian / UK
US Relents on Islamic Law to Reach Iraq Deal
by Rory Carroll and Julian Borger
The United States has eased its opposition to an Islamic Iraqi state to help clinch a deal on a draft constitution before tonight's deadline.
American diplomats backed religious conservatives who threatened to torpedo talks over the shape of the new Iraq unless Islam was a primary source of law. Secular and liberal groups were dismayed at the move, branding it a betrayal of Washington's promise to advocate equal rights in a free and tolerant society.
Stalemate over the role of Islam, among other issues, meant last week's deadline was extended for a week. Outstanding disputes could produce another cliffhanger tonight, triggering a further extension.
The Bush administration, keen to show the political process is on track, has waded into negotiations and pressured all sides to compromise.
Administration officials have suggested that the number of US troops could be reduced next year if Iraq makes political progress and enough Iraqi troops are trained to take on insurgents. But yesterday, a US general said the army was making "worst case" contingency plans to maintain troops at the current level for another four years.
In an interview with the Associated Press, General Peter Schoomaker said the army had planned troop rotations up to 2009 to ensure enough soldiers would be available. But actual deployments will be decided by commanders in Iraq, if conditions allow, he added.
There are currently 138,000 US troops in Iraq, including 25,000 marines. President Bush has repeatedly denied that the US intends to "cut and run", leaving Iraq to the insurgents. "Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy," the president said yesterday in his weekly radio address.
Conservative Shias, dominant in the Iraqi government, had clashed with Kurds and other minorities who wanted Islam to be "a" rather than "the" main source of law.
According to Kurdish and Sunni negotiators, the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, proposed that Islam be named "a primary source" and supported a wording which would give clerics authority in civil matters such as divorce, marriage and inheritance.
If approved, critics say that the proposals would erode women's rights and other freedoms enshrined under existing laws. "We understand the Americans have sided with the Shias. It's shocking. It doesn't fit with American values," an unnamed Kurdish negotiator told Reuters. "They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state."
Dozens of women gathered in central Baghdad yesterday to protest against what the organiser, Yanar Mohammad, feared would be a "fascist, nationalist and Islamist" constitution. "We are fighting to avoid becoming second class citizens," she said.
The US embassy declined to discuss the negotiations but a state department official in Washington told the New York Times that the draft document should be judged in its entirety.
There are conflicting signals about the prospect of a deal before the deadline, with some factions claiming divisions have narrowed, others saying they have widened.
If a text is not handed to parliament by midnight, deputies could be asked to repeat last week's vote and amend the existing law, which decreed the deadline, to extend it further.
The alternative would be to dissolve parliament and call an election, something the ruling Shia and Kurdish coalition wants to avoid.
If a text is agreed, there will be a referendum in October which - if passed - will pave the way for a December election.
Sunni Arabs, a dominant minority under Saddam Hussein and now the backbone of the insurgency, fear a constitution which cedes autonomy to Kurds in the north and Shias in the south, leaving central government too weak to funnel oil revenues to Sunnis in the middle.
The drafting committee's 15-member Sunni bloc said it had been sidelined in recent days and appealed to the US and UN to ensure their voice was heard. US and British diplomats have suggested that federalism will be fudged enough to bring mainstream Sunnis on board and drain support from the resistance.
Al Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups have threatened to kill Sunnis who register to vote, saying the political process is a US-orchestrated sham. Three Sunnis who erected posters in Mosul urging people to vote were murdered last week.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Ltd