Iraqis, in It to Win It


Thursday  March 11, 2004

Fawaz Turki,

Measured against the incessant bad news from Iraq in recent months — political antagonisms and insurgent violence — the good news last Monday was a needed respite: Iraqis agreed to approve an interim constitution, formally known as the Transitional Administrative Law, or Basic Law for short, guaranteeing citizens broad individual rights and preparing their nation for self-government.

It was a close call, since when the Governing Council failed to meet a Feb. 28 deadline to endorse the document, after five Shiite leaders balked at the last minute, it seemed to the outside world that there were crucial and indeed unbridgeable differences separating council members.

To be sure, none of the factions — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — were really happy with the agreement, presumably because no one ended up getting all they wanted. But they must have realized at the end that compromise, the heart of democracy, diplomacy and reconciliation, makes better sense than to throw a wrench into the machine, going for broke.

As if to point to how hazardous the road ahead remains for the implementation of the grand ideals proclaimed so confidently for the country by the American president as the US prepared to go to war a year ago, Iraqis had earlier suffered the bloodiest day of terrorist violence by insurgents who, clearly seeking to foment civil war, mounted simultaneous attacks on crowds of Shiite worshippers in Baghdad and Karbala, butchering close to 200 people and injuring more than 500. Basic Law or no Basic Law, the killing fields in Iraq, alas, will continue to wreak havoc.

The interim constitution should be seen as no less than a landmark document, a moment, as Mohammed Bahr Al-Uloom, who holds the council’s current rotating presidency, that is truly “decisive in the history of Iraq,” offering Iraqis the option of living in a country that defines itself as Islamic while it embraces political and religious freedoms. Above all, the event signals that Iraq’s political elite appear to recognize the benefit to their nation — a nation that for decades had lived on the precipice of ruin under a malevolent dictator who sent hundreds of thousands of his people to their graves — of pragmatism and consensus.

Still there are challenges ahead. Will the Basic Law, whose various clauses guarantee freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and equal rights for all, including those of women, be implemented scrupulously after Iraq regains its freedom as a sovereign nation July 1? After all, keep in mind that many countries in the Third World, including the Arab world, have laws on the books that embrace identical civil rights, but in practice these are ignored.

It may very well be that what we shall see in Iraq, after the scheduled transfer of power July 1, has to do less with rights and more with rites — that is, not merely the political and social empowerment of Everyman, but Iraq’s rite of passage from a country that had had no representative institutions throughout its modern history to one tentatively experimenting with genuine democracy.

Democracy in and by itself is no impediment to the inhuman — and forget the hackneyed notion that “democratic nations do not war against one another.” The Euro-American world is in no position to pull rank on other people in that regard. The hideousness of two world wars, and of colonial massacres, you will agree, did not spring up, say, from the Arabian Peninsula, the Sahara Desert or the Indian subcontinent, but from within, and from the core of European civilization.

Yet in context of modern Iraq, what needs serious note here is the seeming commitment of Iraqis to seek a new and transforming liberation of their national soul. That they were able this week to settle their differences by agreeing to mutual concessions augurs well for their country’s future. Oh, yes, these folks are in it to win it. As Wafik Rubaie, a Shiite council member emerged from the chamber to speak to Arab reporters, he said: “We’re learning something new in Iraq — how to compromise.”

After decades of enduring the banality of Saddam, Iraqis must agree that that is indeed good news.


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