Iraq's New Leaders Wrestle with Role of Islam

Baghdad, Iraq -- When Iraq's recently elected parliament starts debating a new national constitution, one of its thorniest tasks will be to agree on the role of Islam.

The decisions of the 275 MPs, who hold their first working session this month, could have wide-ranging repercussions in a region still searching for a balance between Islam and politics.

Kurds, who have 75 assembly seats, and other secular-minded members say Islam should remain a source of legislation but not the sole one -- the formula adopted for an interim constitution drawn up a year ago under the U.S.-led occupation authority.

Islamists in the parliament's Shi'ite majority may seek a greater role for Muslim sharia law.

Given Iraq's sectarian mix and secular traditions, there is no obvious model for the parliamentarians to follow.

Clerical rulers in Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Afghanistan under the Sunni Muslim Taliban have attempted to enforce strict Islamic codes and punishments with varying degrees of rigor.

Saudi Arabia's royal family, backed by the kingdom's Wahhabi clerical establishment, imposes a similarly austere code, under which thieves may have their hands amputated, female adulterers may be stoned to death and murderers are beheaded.

Few Iraqis advocate emulating these regional examples, but many differ sharply on Islam's place in matters of state.

Toppled President Saddam Hussein injected some supposedly Islamic elements into Iraq's largely secular constitution as he sought to shore up support after his 1991 Gulf War defeat.

Some of these regulations remain on the statute book, including one that denies women passports if they are under 45 and do not have permission from male relatives to travel.

So, for now, does a secular civil affairs law dating from the 1950s. Iraq's postwar U.S. administrator prevented Islamists on a now-defunct Governing Council from scrapping it in 2003.

Shi'ite Islamists in parliament say universal values and equality for women will be respected even if Islam gains a bigger role in the constitution that must be drafted by August.

"Western politicians I meet are surprised how we can espouse human rights while being so devout to Islam, but there is no contradiction," said Dawa Party leader Ibrahim Jaafari, who is almost certain to become Iraq's next prime minister.

The 58-year-old physician, who wears a suit and tie, has criticized the Iranian government for its human rights record, although he spent years in exile in Iran.

Jaafari points to Dawa's founder, the Shi'ite theologian Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr, as representing Islamic teachings compatible with liberty and democracy.

But Jaafari and other Shi'ite assembly members must answer to largely poor Shi'ite voters, long oppressed under Saddam's Sunni-based regime, who might prove less tolerant than they are.


In Basra last week, a group of Islamists attacked a picnic for university students.

"They hit us and called the girls names because they mixed with boys. The police did not do anything. They think they have the right to do this in a democracy," one student said.

And in the holy city of Najaf, the Shi'ite election victory on Jan. 30 was viewed as a triumph for Islam.

"We want an Islamic constitution, although to be honest we don't know exactly what it means and whether Iran is the correct model," said Zeid Riad, a supporter of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

SCIRI, a Shi'ite party founded by Islamist exiles in Iran in 1982, pays homage to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric.

Sistani, who was born in Iran and is based in Najaf, pushed strongly for the Iraqi elections. His aides say he opposes the idea of clerical rule introduced by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranian model does not enjoy wide popularity in Iraq and those hoping for a separation of mosque and state and a gentler constitution than Iran's are looking to Sistani.

"You will not see the ayatollah coming out in public in favor of a political position," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a member of the majority Shi'ite bloc in parliament. "But there is no question he is a force for moderation."