A NATION AT WAR: CONSTITUTION; Questions Arise on Drafting Blueprint for Governing Iraq

April 20, 2003

Reprinted from the New York Times

In the aftermath of a political gathering of Iraqis organized by the United States in Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, the question of who should write a new Iraqi constitution and how it should be adopted is being discussed.

Members of Iraqi exile groups who were present at the conference this past week have been thinking about a new constitution for some time. The ideas of Iraqis who remained in the country while President Saddam Hussein was in power emerged for the first time at the meeting. The gathering, which consisted of members of both groups chosen by the American and British forces, signed a document of 12 principles.

The principles included federalism, democracy, nonviolence, respect for diversity and a role for women. For many, the notion of federalism was all important because a federal system of government would contravene everything the highly centralized authority of Mr. Hussein stood for.

How to codify those ideas and others in a new constitution is an important part of creating a new government, say American and British officials and Iraqi exiles involved in the conference.

That gathering was intended, Bush administration officials said, as a first step toward the creation of an interim Iraqi authority. The next meeting has been called for Friday.

Among those at the Ur conference was Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile who lives in Boston and is affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress, a group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. Mr. Makiya, whose writings have focused on the horrors under Mr. Hussein, has been a prime mover in trying to shape a new constitution.

He is also a favored figure of the Bush administration, so much so that when he had an appointment with Vice President Dick Cheney last week to discuss ways of bringing law and order to Iraq, the vice president took him for an impromptu meeting with President Bush. It was the day that the American marines helped topple the statue of Mr. Hussein in Baghdad, and Mr. Makiya recalled during an interview here that he and the president rejoiced together.

His writings, and his rapport with senior officials in the Bush administration, led the State Department to choose him last year as one of the coordinators of a Democratic Principles Work Group. The group was part of the department's Future of Iraq Project organized to equip the American government with ideas on a variety of issues from oil to democracy for Iraq once Mr. Hussein fell.

In his role as a coordinator of the group, Mr. Makiya published a 102-page report that included some of the basic ideas for a constitution. In his view, a new constitution should be based on an amended form of the 1925 Iraqi Constitution that was adopted under the monarchy. This was his favorite template, he wrote in the report, because the 1925 document was actually discussed among Iraqis and included important basics: no torture, a right to property, no discrimination, freedom of expression and community rights.

He also proposed procedures for establishing a permanent new constitution. A committee within a constituent assembly of jurists and constitutional experts should be established to begin drafting it, he said. It must be given deadlines so that the process did not drag on, he wrote. A census would have to be completed under international supervision to demarcate the boundaries of the federal states, he suggested.

After he completed the report last fall, the State Department put it aside. "They did not want a report that lays a path, they wanted a sounding board," he said. "I said the big issues are about laws and rights, that it's not a touchy-feely exercise." This week, after the Ur conference, Mr. Makiya said he was more confident that his ideas were likely to prevail. "State is moving slowly in the right direction," he said.

Like some of his allies in the Bush administration, Mr. Makiya has little patience with a role for the United Nations. "I fear the great hand of the United Nations," he said. "It will bend and kowtow to the lowest denominator in the region. The legitimacy comes from inside Iraq."

While outsiders wait to hear the views of Iraqis themselves, there are other players in the constitutional process. Britain, for example, would like some kind of United Nations mantle, and as broad a discussion as possible within Iraq. "If anyone wants to start passing around ideas, there should be a wide consultation," said a British diplomat. "Now is the time to start brainstorming."

A United Nations delegate was invited to the conference at Ur. But in the end, the United Nations was absent because the objections of France and Russia prevented the Security Council from agreeing to a United Nations presence.

Some prominent Iraqi exiles, like Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister of Iraq who left when the Baathists came to power, favors United Nations involvement. "A new constitution should be approved by a constitutional assembly or convention which would be elected by the people, preferably under international supervision," Mr. Pachachi said. "Our preference is that the United Nations get involved right away." He said that a broadly based conference should be convened to help direct the writing of a constitution.

"The United Nations would be like a buffer between the Iraqis and the United States military," he added. "I think it is in the United States interest to have the United Nations involved. It would give legitimacy and protect the United States from criticism."