Constitution Panel Proposes Some Limits on Role of Clergy

Baghdad, Iraq - Three authors of Iraq's draft constitution on Wednesday presented the most detailed blueprint to date for a new government, including a two-house parliament and limits on the influence of Islam. But they acknowledged that some crucial issues still remained unresolved with less than two weeks to go before the deadline for a final draft.

The delegates, members of a 71-member committee writing the draft, struck a note of optimism at a news conference at the Convention Center here, saying they thought that the ever-changing document would be finished and ready for the National Assembly's consideration by the Aug. 15 deadline.

"We have some differences, but in principle most issues have been agreed upon," said Hassib Aref, one of 15 Sunni Arabs on the committee. "I think that we will be able to resolve the disputes."

The committee is still grappling with the extent of Islam's role in the state, though the members have concurred that the religion should be "a main source of legislation," said Ahmed Asafi, a delegate and Shiite cleric from the southern city of Basra.

That language was a revision of the wording in an earlier draft, in which Islam was described as "the major source" of legislation. The new wording appeared to be a compromise between some Shiite leaders, who want to designate Islamic law as the model for governing, and some Kurds and other secular Iraqi leaders who are concerned that Islam not be used to strip women and others of basic constitutional rights.

The committee has also agreed that while Islam should be the official religion and the government should protect Iraq's holy shrines and religious heritage, the constitution should not grant political authority to the country's religious leaders, the delegates said.

The committee has also settled on a government with three branches: legislative, judicial and executive.

The legislature, according to the three delegates, will be parliamentary and will consist of two chambers, a National Assembly and a Council of Provinces and Regions, both of which will be directly elected.

Thamir al-Ghadban, a former oil minister and a committee member, said that the National Assembly would probably be elected in a regional system of balloting rather than a nationwide vote, and that the membership of the Council of Provinces and Regions would be proportional to the provincial populations.

According to the three delegates, the committee has also agreed on the basic powers of the legislature, including the National Assembly's authority to elect the prime minister, his cabinet and the president.

While the prime minister will be "the highest authority of the country" and commander in chief of the armed forces, the Assembly will have the responsibility to supervise the executive branch, including the right to check the prime minister with votes of confidence or no confidence. The presidency will be essentially ceremonial, Mr. Ghadban said.

Under the current draft, there will be a "higher council of the judiciary," with the duty to select judges, and a national court to resolve disputes between the central government and regional authorities. In addition, the constitutional committee has agreed to create several independent governmental institutions, including a central bank and religious endowments authorized to maintain the country's religious centers.

Among the most contested issues, the committee is still debating whether Kurdish should be an official national language in addition to Arabic.

The issue of federalism also remains in dispute, according to the three delegates. All of the negotiating parties have agreed that the country must move away from a strong central government, but how much remains an open question. The Kurds and some Shiite leaders are urging a quick move toward more regional autonomy, but the Sunni Arabs are arguing for a more moderate first step, the delegates said.

To try to help resolve another debate in the constitutional committee, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited the contested northern oil center of Kirkuk on Wednesday and urged the three major ethnic groups there - Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens - to form a joint local government.

On Friday, several of the country’s main political leaders are scheduled to begin working through the outstanding issues that have bedeviled the constitutional committee. They plan to submit their recommended solutions to the committee by Aug. 12.

Should the committee be unable to resolve these issues before Aug. 15, many members are prepared to refer them to the National Assembly, Mr. Aref said.

Mr. Asafi, who is also a member of the National Assembly, repeatedly emphasized that the committee was committed to preserving the plurality of the nation. "The principle we depend on is that we should respect all identities," he said. "I think we should do justice to all people in spite of race or religion."

"God willing," he added, "we are about to complete this crucial procedure."