Top Iraqi Official Wants Islam-Based Law

Iraq's current top official has demanded that Islam be the principal basis for Iraq's laws, a move that breaches a previous agreement among the framers of the interim constitution and creates the possibility that Islamic law could rule the land.

If approved, the proposal could have broad effects on secular Iraq, taking away rights of women in divorce and inheritance cases, shuttering liquor stores and banning gambling, legal advisers here say. Elements also run counter to President Bush's goal of turning Iraq into a beacon for democracy in the Middle East.

"There could be changes in the Iraqi state," said Salem Chalabi, a legal adviser to the Governing Council and a member of the 10-member committee framing the basic transitional law, which acts as an interim constitution and is to take effect at the end of this month.

"If someone proposes a law of inheritance that conflicts with sharia, or Islam, then it's invalid," Chalabi said. "The registration of liquor stores may become illegal."

Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, the current president of Iraq's U.S.-picked Governing Council and a member of a drafting committee, proposed the change last week. Abdel-Hamid is a Sunni Muslim scholar who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, which espouses a conservative view of Islam.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Abdel-Hamid said he wants "a constitution that represents the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people, with all the respect due to other identities."

Islamic law influences the legal code throughout most of the Middle East, but in relatively secular countries, such as Egypt, loopholes are applied in certain areas, for example to allow Western-style banking and in rules governing women's dress.

Saudi Arabia, however, follows an Islam-based legal code that provides for amputations for theft and public beheadings for murder and rape.

In an interview televised on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Bush said Iraqis would not approve of an extremist Islamic regime.

"They're not going to develop that. And the reason I can say that is because I'm very aware of this basic law they're writing," Bush said.

Bush said he discussed the law with three Governing Council members who assured him a future constitution would enshrine minority rights and freedom of religion.

Abdel-Hamid's measure would not take away freedom to practice other religions, but would make Islamic codes the arbiter of future laws, with exceptions made for minority religions. The proposal sparked what framers of the law called "heated" discussions.

Perhaps the largest effect would be to moot much of Iraq's 1959 Law of Personal Status, which grants uniform rights to husband and wife to divorce and inheritance, and governs related issues like child support, Chalabi said.

Representatives of Iraq's Kurdish and Christian parties, and those with liberal Western views have voiced opposition to the Islamization of Iraq's legal code, and the issue remains under discussion. Women would be most affected, said one opponent.

"If this happens 50 percent of Iraqi society will need to be liberated," said Younadem Kana, a Christian member of the Governing Council. "We need to fight for the rights of all Iraqis — women and minorities as well."

Speaking in defense of the proposal, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric and member of the Governing Council, said on Saturday that future Iraqi legislators would be prevented from adopting laws that violate Islam. Al-Hakim also said special cases could be made for non-Muslim minorities, including Iraq's 1 million Christians, whose rights to purchase alcohol could be protected.

Committee members said the law, if passed, would bring Iraq's legal code far short of those espoused by more conservative neighbors such as Saudi Arabia — where women aren't permitted to vote or drive.

"Nobody's suggesting that Iraq become an Islamic state," Chalabi said. "Nobody's really going that far."

To take effect, the Islamic law proposal would have to be approved by the framing committee and added to the transitional law, which must be accepted by the full Governing Council.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer is vested with power to veto the measure. A request for comment made Monday to the U.S.-led occupation authority went unanswered.

The transition law is to act as Iraq's constitution until a permanent constitution replaces it, probably by 2005.