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.
Similarly, the leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority are pushing for powers of self-rule that would mirror the Kurds'. That has raised concerns that the central government might be too weak to hold the country together.
As a possible model for Iraq to follow, Khalilzad mentioned the South African constitution, which was drafted in the 1990s following the collapse of the apartheid regime. In South Africa, he said, the country agreed on what he described as "a weak form of federalism," reserving a good deal of power for the central government.
"This formulation has resulted in stable government since 1996," he said of the South African constitution. "If one looks across the cases of successful constitutions, a key commonality was enlightened leadership leaders who took the long view and understood that compromise that delivers the benefits of stable and effective governance is more valuable than seeking a maximum outcome at the expense of political unity." Members of the constitutional committee said on Monday that they had scaled back the more restrictive provisions regarding women and family law.
Iraqi women's groups expressed skepticism, however. Some women leaders said they would continue to oppose the language, in part because it abolishes the 1959 law that accorded specific rights to women. As recently as a week ago, a working draft of the constitution had provided that matters of family law were to be judged according to rulings by the family's religious sect Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim, Yezidi, Assyrian Christian, and so on. That opened the door to stringent restrictions on women's rights regarding inheritance, marriage and property.
The new draft, presented at a news conference Monday, would allow the family to chose which set of family laws it preferred to follow, regardless of its religion.
Iraqis on the constitutional committee, as well as a U.N. expert, contended that the changes would essentially leave unchanged a large body of rulings and statutes that now accord Iraqi women broad rights in family matters.
"We would not force anyone to abide by any sect, and people are free to follow any sect, and this goes for marriage and inheritance," said Khudair Al-Khuzaei, a member of the subcommittee, said at the news conference.
Still, by itself, the new language appears to leave family law entirely in the hands of clerics.
"They did nothing," said Dohar Rouhi, the president of the Association of Woman Entrepreneurs and a participant in a women's protest last week in downtown Baghdad. "They accomplished nothing."
Insurgents continued to ravage the capital and its environs Monday. At sunrise, a suicide bomber crashed an explosive-laden car into the Sadeer Hotel in central Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 10 others. The attack was the second on the Sadeer, where Western contractors live; in March, a suicide bomber killed one person and injured 40 others.
On Monday, the attack destroyed seven small shops, owned by struggling Iraqi businessmen, that sold good as varied as cigarettes and furniture.
"Our misery seems to be endless," Saad Khaleel, 22-year-old living in the area said, standing surrounded by the ruins.
A second suicide bomber struck an Interior Ministry checkpoint in the Harthiya neighborhood, killing two people and injuring 11. In Latifya, south of Baghdad, two Iraqi civilians were killed when a roadside bomb exploded.
al-Qaida of Mesopotamia, the group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said in a statement posted on the internet that its fighters had kidnapped Ali Belarouci, Algeria's top envoy to Iraq. The statement made no mention of Azzedine Belkadi, another Algerian diplomat who was kidnapped along with Belarouci, last week in Baghdad.
The statement also provided no details on Belarouci's condition, nor did it make any demands."This is a victory to let everybody know that the Land of the Two Rivers is under the control of the mujahedeen," the statement said.
Contributing: Ed Wong.