Iraq secularists denounce "Islamist" constitution

Baghdad, Iraq - Secular Iraqis said on Wednesday a proposed new constitution left no room for doubt about the Islamist path the country was heading down two years after a U.S.-led invasion was supposed to produce greater freedoms.

The document presented to parliament on Monday is suffused with the language of political Islam in defining the state, and assigns a primary role to Islam as a source for legislation.

"The draft aborts the democratic process Iraqis hoped for and is a big victory for political Islam," said writer Adel Abdel-Amir. "Islamic law, not the people, has become the source of authority."

The draft says Islam is the official religion of the state and there can be no law that contradicts the "fixed principles of its rulings." The preamble says the constitution responds to "the call of our religious and national leaders and the insistence of our great religious authorities."

Language guaranteeing "rights and freedoms" is subordinate to the primary position given to Islam, opponents say.

"Human rights should not be linked to Islamic Sharia law at all. It should be listed separately in the constitution," said Safia Souhail, Iraq's ambassador to Egypt.

The prominent women's rights campaigner denounced wording that grants each religious sect the right to run its own family courts -- apparently doing away with previous civil codes -- as an open door to further Islamicise the legal system.

Although in practice, many Iraqis end up having recourse to religious authorities or informal tribal law, the idea of a united civil code is central to the modern state, Souhail said.

"This will lead to creating religious courts. But we should be giving priority to the law," she said.

"When we came back from exile, we thought we were going to improve rights and the position of women. But look what has happened -- we have lost all the gains we made over the last 30 years. It's a big disappointment."


Despite the brutality and despotism, the decades of Baath Party rule under Saddam Hussein left a largely secular legacy, which included relative freedom for women.

"We had hoped for a secular constitution that would separate religion from state," said Mirza Dinnayi, leader of the Yazidi sect viewed by Islamists now running Iraq as devil worshippers.

"It doesn't even mention some minorities ... A constitution that can't ensure the rights of its citizens and equality doesn't deserve to be called a constitution."

The only minorities ensured specific rights are Kurds, who have a federal region in the north, and speakers of Syriac, who it says are free to educate their children in the language.

Iraq's state media organs -- the daily paper al-Sabah and satellite channel al-Iraqiya -- have come out full guns blazing in favor of the draft, which the Sunni minority favored by Saddam are mobilizing to bring down in an October referendum.

But the popular Azzaman daily said in a column on Wednesday that parliament would be better off dissolved than promulgating a document such as the draft, as expected, later this week.

"It gives with one hand and takes with the other. This constitution is not close to a modern state," the paper's managing editor Saad Abbas told Reuters.

He drew attention to a list of Baath era crimes in the preamble that gives priority to the suffering of Shi'ites.

"It mentions some victims and doesn't mention others. Communists, for example, also suffered. It's fair to the Islamists but not the non-Islamists," Abbas said.

Souhail said the United States, a crucial backstage player keen for a deal that meets U.S.-backed deadlines, had let the Shi'ite Islamists and Kurds in government do as they wish.

"We have received news that we were not backed by our friends including the Americans. They left the Islamists to come to an agreement with the Kurds," she said.