Iraqi people losing out in democratic process

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

The democracy that Iraqis were promised by the United States when it led an invasion almost 21/2 years ago and overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein is far from being fulfilled. Worse, the process is being compromised by religious and ethnic disputes, foreign pressure and hasty, ill-judged, decision- making.

Another deadline expires tonight for interim lawmakers to conclude drafting the country's new constitution. With no more delays permitted, an inability to reach consensus on the key divisive issues of religion and autonomy will push back Iraqi self-rule by as much as a year.

Muslim majority Shi'ite leaders insist Islam be made the main legal foundation and that political roles be given to clerics, while ethnic Kurds and other groups argue it would harm women's rights and Iraq's secular tradition.

Minority Sunnis, the rulers under Hussein, have lost that authority in a democratic Iraq, but must still play a significant role in determining the country's future.

Kurds want to retain their autonomous northern region and some Kurdish legislators even want that extended to greater self-rule, leaving open the option of one day having an independent nation.

Without compromise, new elections will have to be held to choose another team of constitutional lawmakers; an October referendum on the document will be delayed until agreeable wording can be formulated; and assuming Iraqis do not oppose the final draft, the democratically elected leadership that was the basis for invasion will take office towards the end of next year.

What the constitution lays down is a matter for Iraqis to determine. But drafters need to keep in mind their obligation to ensure that the people of Iraq are given the freedoms denied under Hussein - which are already adequately mapped out by international law.

A government-sanctioned decision to execute three men in coming days is at odds with those rules. So, too, is the lack of access lawyers and families are being given to the dozens of members of Hussein's government who are in American custody and awaiting trial.

The executions, the first since the invasion, were approved by a legal system that, as yet, has no constitutional approval. There is no basis for the use of the death penalty under international law.

Former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, captured in April 2003, on Saturday became the first member of the regime to be allowed a visit by his family. He has yet to be charged with any crime, yet could go on trial in a matter of months. If found guilty, he and other Hussein loyalists could well face execution.

The wrong signals are being sent to Iraqis. There are many permutations of democracy, but the type they are increasingly being offered benefits some more than others. It is a situation lawmakers must rectify now, before it is too late.