Iraqi Leaders Draft Constitution

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Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service/Baghdad bureau chief
Tuesday, August 23, 2005; 12:00 PM

Shiites and Kurds prepared to send a draft constitution to parliament Monday for consideration, but the objections of Sunnis makes its passage unlikely. The proposal calls for a loose federation with strongly Islamic national law, but the Sunni minority has expressed concern that this could lead to the breakup of Iraq. What's the next step for Iraq's constitution? What are the attitudes and feelings within Iraq towards the proposed governing system?

Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer was online Tuesday, Aug. 23, at noon ET to discuss the latest on the Iraqi constitution.

The transcript follows.


Seattle, Wash.: Hi, Ellen!

With all of the conflict and unrest, how dangerous is living in Iraq right now? Are residents able to go out and about? Are they able to work and go to school?

Take care of yourself!

Ellen Knickmeyer: I'd say it's people trying to live their normal lives under the gun, and in threat of bombs and greatly increased crime, and they've had to make a lot of compromises.

The Iraqis I know have to pay to have armed guards on the vans taking their kids to school, for fear of kidnapping. Many parents, for more than a year now, are keeping their children indoors, also for fear of kidnapping and violence. Girls especially are confined almost entirely to the home _ not out of belief they shouldn't be out there in public, but because of fears for their safety. You can imagine what kind of summer kids are having when it's 120 degrees, no electricity or limited electricity, and they can't leave their house.

I talked to one mother at an amusement park earlier this summer, who told her children she was taking them to the candy store, and the children were terrified _ "Won't we be kidnapped?" they asked, she said.

Basically, they're going about their daily lives as much as they can, but all the time they're out they're on the lookout for U.S. convoys that will attract car-bombers, or that might open fire on civilians who got too close...And there's plenty of other armed groups around here that are very quick to fire while they're on the road, including Iraqi police. It seems everyone has stories about close calls, or deaths in their families. And people ignore the sounds of gunshots close-by now, and hardly flinch at the sound of car bombs.

So how dangerous? It's not Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, but it's a hard way to live.


Washington, D.C.: Your article today says "the draft constitution says individuals can choose to have family matters decided by either religious or civil law." I don't see that anywhere in the draft constitution on The Post's web site. Is the entire draft posted?

Ellen Knickmeyer: We're told today there isn't a proper draft put together yet _ that the version as it is now exists in people's heads and in copies annotated with handwritten notes.

There are a couple of new drafts floating around today, but I think they may reflect the drafts that various sides are putting forward.


Decatur, Ga.: What do you think will happen if the draft passes in the national assembly, but gets rejected by the Sunnis, would the ruling parties still go ahead with the new constitution?

Ellen Knickmeyer: Everything leaders are saying now indicates that if they can't bring Sunnis on board, they'll go ahead without them.


Riverside, Calif.: How could it be possible, even in the slightest, to have a Democracy in Iraq (or anywhere) which ignores or imposes restrictions on the participation of women?

Ellen Knickmeyer: Good question! I should say first that some leaders involved in the talks say it will respect the rights of women.

However, the constitution as it is now provides that no law can contradict the essential principles of Islam _ and some basic principles that have been enforced in other countries, or already here in Iraq in the predominantly Shiite south, include that women must cover their heads, and that women may not be judges, etc. Women also could face disadvantages in decisions on inheritance, alimony and other family matters under the constitution.

The constitution also provides that no law can contradict democracy, and no law can contravene human rights (I'm giving short hand for what's in there.) The question of who interprets all this is obviously very important. That's where the constitution's provision for a supreme court made up of both clerics and secular judges becomes very important.

The existing drafts call for the National Assembly to determine how many of those judges should be secular, and how many Islamic. Under the current, interim National Assembly, where two religious Shiite parties now dominate, clerics would be expected to have a fairly significant role on the court. It will be the next National Assembly, after January elections, that determine that, though.

And in answer to your question: I'd say women's rights can be given less than full attention because there are no women among the top politicians. If the constitution is disadvantageous for women, it would be because no politician with adequate clout had chosen to make women's rights a make-or-break issue for the deal.


Washington, D.C.: Ellen -- a more lighthearted question, if you will. I've always been curious (and admittedly, a bit concerned) about the nourishment of reporters in Baghdad. From where do you get your food? How do you stay healthy, or exercise, if you want to? Elaborate if you will, and stay safe.

Ellen Knickmeyer: Hi. I gained 10 pounds since I came here in March, myself. Busy schedule and being more cooped up than usual makes for weight gain, for me. Can't jog in war zones. Not that I don't have it immeasurably better than most Iraqis.


Tulsa, Okla.: Greetings from your home state of Oklahoma:

I realize that there is no such thing as a "typical day," but what is a "typical day" like? What time do you get up? Do you leave the office/house every single day? How do you work your sources? By phone or in person? Do you wear the burka (or whatever it is called) when you go outside? What is the very latest time you can file your story for the next day's paper?

Ellen Knickmeyer: OK, I'll forgo the temptation to see if we have friends in common in Tulsa..

My bosses and I would have very different answers on what's the very latest I can file a story.

Pretty late. I write long and slow and cumbersome and file around or after midnight, almost always.

Typical day can be very long _ sometimes we have to be up and out for press conferences or interviews or the like by 7:30 or 8 in the morning. I go around in a scarf always, and often in an abaya _ the long, black, hot, polyester Iraqi version of Afghanistan's blue burkas _ to blend in as much as possible.

Some of what I do I can't talk about for security reasons, but we do look for safe ways to talk to Iraqis as much as possible _ instead filtering our view of Iraq entirely through the Green Zone.


Washington, D.C.: In similar processes, the U.N. has played an important role in mediating between parties. What has the role of the U.N. been in the Constitutional drafting process?

Ellen Knickmeyer: They drew down to fewer than three dozen people after they had that couple of bad bombings, in 2003. They're back up to about 330 staff, I think, now, with about 100 of that foreign. They're very limited in terms of movement. They have been helping with and involved in the constitution, but my impression is since the last week, when the deal-making on the constitution has become more down-and-dirty (don't mean dirty in any negative sense) the U.N. may have been edged out more to the sidelines.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Hello Ellen--One could argue that the direction of the current process is a constitution that will either fail to give Iraqi Shiites the degree of control of Iraq as a whole and the geographical hegemony in the South that they desire, or inflame the passions of Iraqi Sunnis by further diminishing their power in a country they once controlled.

Is there a workable compromise in here anywhere? And if not, will this constitution have any lasting significance at all of a positive nature?


Ellen Knickmeyer: I'd say compromise is possible if all sides are able to put aside distrust, and actually do want to live together peacefully, sted getting best deal they can get for themselves. That would be more the answer, more than any magic formula. They're negotiating with a history that inevitably has produced suspicions, and it doesn't help that all these armed factions _ Kurdish militias, Shiite ex-militia fighters, Sunni insurgents _ are flourishing while the negotiations are going on.


Burlington, Vt.: With all the violence in Iraq, I don't get a sense that journalists are reporting very much from the country itself. If they're not embedded with a military unit, they seem to stay pretty close to the Green Zone. As a result, among many other frustrations, it's frustrating here not to know whether actual conditions, in safety and security, economic vitality, education, even basic necessities, are improving or not. Comment, please?

Ellen Knickmeyer: It's not really true that reporters can only report from the safety of the Green Zone or from embeds. Some news organizations make that decision for their staff, but many _ including Post reporters _ go out more. (Although it is true that limitations on our movement for security are very frustrating.)

I try to slip looks at ordinary-life into my stories, but you're right we, including myself, don't do that nearly enough. Part of that is because there's so much spot-news we have to cover, we don't have much time for catch-up stories like looks at life. You'd also have to be prepared as a reader for fact these stories aren't going to be cheerful. I hear a lot when I go back to the States from people who say they tune out bad news from Iraq.


Boca Raton, Fla.: "Ellen Knickmeyer: Everything leaders are saying now indicates that if they can't bring Sunnis on board, they'll go ahead without them."

Ellen, Thank you for reporting from Baghdad.

If "they" go ahead without them, doesn't that sound like a recipe for civil war?

Ellen Knickmeyer: I asked one Sunni leader in Baghdad that, and he said, "We're already in civil war." The fact that a car bomb exploded as I was talking to him, killing four Iraqis at a restaurant within two blocks of where we were talking, seemed to make that a legitimate point to contend. (Although I don't think this is a full civil war.)

There are lots, and lots, of issues that could aggravate the situation here. The Kurdish-Arab issue over claims to the oil city of Kirkuk is another one of them.

So, yes, this is a dangerous time in general. And if Sunni feel despite their good-faith efforts to join politics they've been shut out _ which I'm not saying is the case, but could be their perception _ that seems a real danger.


Silver Spring, Md.: If the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can't get along, why not divide the area up into different countries? It seems like Iraq was created by western politicians rather than along natural ethnic divides and doesn't seem to make much sense to force the ethnic groups to adjust to each other.

Ellen Knickmeyer: Even that by itself wouldn't be a peaceful solution, absent goodwill. The various populations aren't separately concentrated in distinct areas _ for example, there are more Shia in central Iraq than in the traditionally Shiite south, I believe. Declaring any one region a Shiite, Kurdish or Sunni area could bring big problems of its own, including ensuring rights of minorities in those areas and marking borders to satisfaction of all.

Of course Iraq has only been a united country, sted three separate parts of the old Ottoman empire, only since the early 20th century. That doesn't mean many Iraqis aren't ardently devoted to their country, tho.


Toronto, Ontario: You said:

"that the version as it is now exists in people's heads and in copies annotated with handwritten notes."

Sounds chaotic! Might this not mean there is no version at all?

Ellen Knickmeyer: Chaotic, yes, but can't say it's any more chaotic than the sessions of the Oklahoma legislature I covered _ when the lawmakers would cover the clock in the Oklahoma Senate or House with a jacket so they technically could go past midnight deadlines on budgets, etc. Although Oklahoma has no armed quasi-militias, to speak of. Point just being this kind of brinkmanship goes on most places...

It's a work in progress, definitely....probably there's some disagreement on who has the definitive working copy.


Alexandria, Va,: Who is writing the Constitution, real Iraqi or former Iraqi Expatriates who return to the country recently?

Ellen Knickmeyer: Hi _ a very high percentage are exiles returned to Iraq. Of some of the top leaders _ Jafari, Talabani, Barzani, Hakim _ all lived outside Iraq proper (Talabani and Barzani in Kurdistan.)

They'd disagree as to real Iraqi, I'm sure _ most left Saddam-era Iraq only because they would likely have been killed by Saddam's forces had they stayed.


Washington, D.C.: You just stated "Part of that is because there's so much spot-news we have to cover, we don't have much time for catch-up stories like looks at life. You'd also have to be prepared as a reader for fact these stories aren't going to be cheerful." Are you saying you and/or other reporters avoid reporting issues if they aren't rosy enough? Shouldn't a reader's distaste for not-so-happy events in a war zone be irrelevant?

Ellen Knickmeyer: No, we definitely don't avoid non-rosy stories. I can't say I've written a rosy one yet. I'm glad to hear readers want to know more about the broader, non-spot-war news picture here.


Bombay, India: Ellen, say a word about the permanent bases status for the U.S. troops. We hear very little about them. Are they likely to happen, what do ordinary Iraqis feel about them? Is our pledge to withdraw troops always minus those that would stay at these bases? I read that would be up to 50,000.

Ellen Knickmeyer: I can say Iraqis are very, very suspicious in general about long-term U.S. military plans here. They think the military is here to stay, to some extent.


Laurel, Md.: Is there anything to Howard Dean's recent bluster about women under the drafts of the constitution being LESS free than under Saddam Hussein?

Regarding a previous question of how democracy can exist without equal rights for women, a good example is America from 1787 to 1919.

Ellen Knickmeyer: Hi. The Iraqi speaker of the house just said the same to me, re women's circumstances being better under Saddam than they will be under the current draft constitution.

Under Saddam, during the secular early decades, women certainly faced discrimination and seldom made it to the top ranks of professions, they had more opportunities for higher education and top professions than in many other parts of the Middle East. Specifically on matters including marriage and divorce, and inheritance, they were guaranteed equal status under civil law.


Washington, D.C.: Retired Gen. William Odom writes on "If I were a journalist, I would list all the arguments that you hear against pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, the horrible things that people say would happen, and then ask: Aren't they happening already? Would a pullout really make things worse? Maybe it would make things better."

So, how about it?

Ellen Knickmeyer: It's one argument that removing the U.S. presence would remove the main irritant, but you would leave the country's security dependent upon national security forces that ...I'm trying to do the numbers in my head ... can muster no more than 50,000 Iraqi soldiers whom the U.S. military says are trained and capable of taking the lead in responding to any threats to national security.

There are many, many more armed fighters than that. A U.S. withdrawal now wouldn't precisely leave a security vacuum, but it would leave a very unsteady security situation. And just the fact of the U.S. withdrawal would probably intensify the jostling for position by the armed groups.


Washington, D.C.: I read this morning's report and it wasn't until the 18th paragraph deep inside the paper that I read that the new 'draft' constitution sets creates the new Iraq as an Islamic state.

Isn't this important enough to be in the lead?

Ellen Knickmeyer: I think most majority-Muslim states have in the constitution that they are Islamic states. The role of Islamic law is more the determining factor in how much of a say religion has in government and everyday life.


Parkton, Md.: Why is there so much journalistic focus on what the Iraqis are doing with their "constitution? It will have little or no impact on our conduct in the course of the war.

My opinion: This reporting of minutia and excessive analysis of Iraqi affairs has overshadowed the proceedings of our own government. Just ask any American what's in the energy bill or the highway bill. Prime examples of Pork and "borrow and spend"

Journalist are so caught up in finding something "immediate" the obligation to the people that feed them has been neglected.

Ellen Knickmeyer: My take on it: It's our war, and we ought to read about it.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


Cambridge, Mass.: Has any information been made public about the ethnic composition of newly-trained Iraqi security forces? Reports seem to suggest that they are disproportionately Shiite and Kurdish - is this true, and, if it is, how might that fact play into the future of Iraq?

Ellen Knickmeyer: They are predominantly Shiite and Kurd, although the military in just the past few weeks had a recruitment drive aimed at signing up more Sunni.

They've had a little bit more than a year, at most, to be an army together _ U.S. commanders say they expect there are going to be crises that test their loyalties.


Ellen Knickmeyer: I've got to go finish (start) today's story, but thank you all very much for your questions _ the depth of your knowledge about the story and the thoughtfulness of your questions reassures me about the interest, and drives home how much there is here that we have to cover.

Best, Ellen.


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