U.S. envoy pushes for Iraqi rights for women

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq waded into the debate over Iraq's constitution Monday, signaling that the United States would work to guarantee the rights of Iraqi women and to blunt the desires of ethnic and religious factions pushing for broader autonomy in the new Iraqi state.

With less than three weeks before the country's permanent constitution is supposed to be completed, the new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, indicated that the United States would play an active — and, if need be, public — role in brokering what he called a "national compact" among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.

In remarks at his residence inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, Khalilzad spoke twice of the need to avert a "civil war," a possibility that Iraqi and American officials speak of here with growing frequency.

To reach an accommodation, he said, it would be necessary for each of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups to "accept less than its maximum aspirations."

"You don't want to do things that build the infrastructure for a future civil war or warlordism," said Khalilzad, who recently competed a stint as the American envoy to Afghanistan, which was ravaged by years of civil war. "The lesson is that, if good faith efforts are made, with a sprit of realism, flexibility and compromise, even fundamental divides can be bridged."

Khalilzad's public remarks appeared to signal a departure from the previous policy of the Bush administration. Following the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty in June 2004, Khalilzad's predecessor, John Negroponte, had adopted a low profile and rarely appeared in public.

But the urgency of Iraq's situation — exemplified by Khalilzad's remarks about civil war — seems to have prompted the Bush administration to push its chief diplomat into a more forceful and public role. In his role in Afghanistan, Khalilzad was deeply engaged in the day-to-day workings of the Kabul government.

American officials are pushing the Iraqis to finish the constitution, which they hope will ameliorate the country's tensions, but are equally concerned that an ill-crafted document could sow the seeds of a future conflict. The committee is supposed to finish its work by Aug. 15, after which the document will be submitted for a nationwide referendum.

In his remarks, Khalilzad said he expected Iraq's new constitution to enshrine the principle of "equality before the law for men and women." Those remarks seemed an admonition to the Iraqi drafters of the constitution, which in one recent version, allowed issues like marriage, inheritance and divorce to be governed by Quranic law, known as Sharia. That would likely result in a curtailment of some of the rights long held by women here.

Khalilzad left little doubt what he thought of proposals to turn over family matters to religious law. "A society cannot achieve all its potential if it does things that prevents — weakens prospects of — half of its population to make the fullest contribution that it can," he said.

He also indicated that the United States would try to limit demands for broader autonomy from some of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups. Without mentioning any particular group, he suggested that excessive demands for autonomy by these groups could leave the central government in Baghdad in a dangerously weakened state that could hinder its ability to hold the country together.

Khalilzad may have been sending a message to leaders of both Iraq's Shiite majority and its Kurdish minority, who have been pushing to enshrine their desires in the constitution. The Kurds have had a broad measure of self-rule since the end of the first Gulf War. There appears to be a consensus among the drafters to allow the Kurds to retain the powers they have, but the Kurds have been pressing to expand their autonomous region and to institutionalize that expansion in the constitution, causing friction.

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