Islam to guide constitution

Baghdad, Iraq - Religion will play a dominant role in Iraq's new constitution, which will identify Islam as "the main source" of the nation's laws, members of the committee drafting the document said Wednesday.

It will also state that no law will be permitted that contradicts Islam, language that could potentially see Iraq transformed into an Islamic state.

The agreement on the wording, announced at a news conference attended by leaders of all the main factions, appears to mark a breakthrough on one of the key issues that must be resolved if Iraq's legislature is to meet an Aug. 15 deadline for completing the constitution. The committee is under intense U.S. pressure not to delay the timetable, which could interfere with plans to draw down American troops next year.

But the language goes further than U.S. officials had wanted in defining the role religion will play in shaping the country's laws and could open the door to a strongly Islamic style of governance in the future.

In Washington, a spokesman for the State Department said late Wednesday that the department has not yet seen a full draft of the charter and there would be no immediate comment.

Humam Hamoudi, a Shiite cleric and chairman of the constitutional committee, said any constitution that did not embrace Islam would be rejected by a majority of Iraqis when it is put to a referendum in October.

"The average Iraqi now supports a significant role for religion in the state," he said. "If we don't put this demand in the constitution, the constitution will not get votes [in the referendum], we will fail, the National Assembly will disband and the process will start over."

Whether most Iraqis want an Islamic state isn't clear, but January's election demonstrated that Iraq's Shiite majority will heed their powerful clergy when deciding how to vote, giving religious leaders considerable leverage in the negotiations. Adnan al-Janabi, a secularist and one of the committee's deputy chairmen, said he would have preferred a complete separation of religion and state "but we have to accept the reality of the moment."

The extent to which Iraq becomes an Islamic state will depend on future elections and the the constitutional court that will rule on the constitutionality of the nation's laws, he said after the news conference.

"If the people in parliament and the constitutional court are all Islamists, then you will gradually have an Islamic state," said al-Janabi, a member of the group led by the former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

In Iran, a powerful council of unelected clergy vets laws to ensure they comply with Islam, but Hamoudi insisted there would be no role for clergy enshrined in Iraq's constitution.

Clergy `will not interfere'

"Clergymen will not interfere in the government's work," he said.

Iraq's small Christian community as well as other religious minorities will be free to practice their religion, he said.

Secularists in the constitutional committee are trying to push for language elsewhere in the constitution that will counterbalance its demand that all laws comply with Islamic law, or Shariah. In particular, they are seeking guarantees that civil law will exist alongside religious laws and regulate family issues such as marriage and divorce, as they did under Iraq's old constitution, al-Janabi said.

"By tradition all our customs go back to Shariah, and if we accept that Shariah is the basis of our traditions, then the constitution represents a limitation on Shariah," he said.

Women's groups have expressed alarm at indications that the constitution's drafters intend to remove family law from civil courts and place it under religious courts that typically accord women fewer rights than men in matters such as marriage, inheritance and divorce. Officials say that issue hasn't been resolved.

Fuad Massoum, the Kurdish representative on the committee, said the intention is to balance secularism with Islam.

"Until now, it hasn't been suggested that the system in Iraq should be a completely Islamic one," he said. "Also, it isn't suggested that it should be completely secular, because the majority of Iraqis are Muslims."

Kurdish leaders have frequently said they will not allow Iraq to be transformed into an Islamic state, but they are also pushing for a high degree of autonomy that will make it difficult to apply Iraqi laws in the Kurdish region. The issue of federalism and the degree of autonomy for the Kurdish region are among the most contentious of the many issues that must be resolved for the constitution to be completed on time.

Assembly has Shiite majority

Still undecided is the official name of the country, but al-Janabi said he thought it unlikely that the Islamists would succeed in their bid to call it the Islamic Republic of Iraq.

Shiites representing a coalition of mostly religious parties form a narrow majority in the National Assembly charged with drafting the constitution, but they do not command the two-thirds majority required for the constitution to be approved. This has forced them to temper some aspirations.

One draft version circulating in Baghdad goes even further in laying the foundations of a Shiite Islamic state by calling for a special advisory role for the Shiite religious authorities to be constitutionally enshrined. It also allows the government to designate "another" capital, a veiled reference to the desire of some Shiites that the Shiite holy city of Najaf should be the capital.

This draft has caused huge controversy, but committee members insist it is not being seriously considered.

But the Shiites have won some support for a strong role for Islam from some representatives of the Sunni minority, invited to participate in the deliberations after their boycott of January's elections.

The committee is under intense U.S. pressure to finish the document on time so the military can proceed with plans to start drawing down troops next year. But U.S. officials have also insisted they want a document that fully guarantees democracy, including rights of women.