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IN THE NEWS - Iraq's Temporary Constitution - 2004-03-13

Broadcast: March 13, 2004

This is Bob Doughty with In the News, in VOA Special English.

A temporary constitution signed this week in Iraq takes effect on July first. That is one day after a temporary government is expected to take office.

All twenty-five members of the Iraqi Governing Council or their representatives signed the constitution on Monday. Members called it a new beginning for their country. The document will serve as the law during efforts to approve a permanent constitution and to hold elections for leaders.

The constitution is officially known as the Transitional Administrative Law in Iraq. It calls for elections by the end of next January to choose a temporary assembly. This group will propose a permanent constitution and choose a president and two deputy presidents.

Those three officials will choose a prime minister and a cabinet. The temporary government is to remain in power until Iraqis vote on a permanent constitution and directly elect leaders.

The document signed this week includes a bill of rights. It guarantees freedom of speech and religion. It also guarantees other rights denied by the government of Saddam Hussein, like the right to gather. The constitution says women will be represented in the government. Islam will be the official religion and what the document calls "a source of legislation." And Kurds will continue to have self-rule in northern Iraq.

The signing was delayed last week after bombings in Baghdad and Karbala. The ceremony was delayed a second time last Friday.

Shiite members of the American-appointed council had refused to sign the constitution because of objections by their leaders. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani objected to two parts of the document. One would veto a permanent constitution if two-thirds of voters in any three provinces rejected it. This could give veto power to ethnic Kurds. They control three provinces.

Kurds say this part of the document protects them against having Shiites decide the terms of a permanent constitution. But Shiite leaders want it removed. They say it would let the Kurds block the will of the Shiite majority.

About sixty-percent of Iraqis are Shiite. Kurds are about twenty percent. Sunni Muslims are also about twenty percent. Iraq has twenty-five million people.

Shiite leaders also objected to a provision that would permit either of the future deputies to reject decisions of a Shiite president.

Shiite members of the Governing Council say they will seek changes in the parts of the document that they consider undemocratic.

Iraqis who praise the temporary constitution say it gives a voice to all groups. Others who reject the document call it a product of the United States.

President Bush called the signing this week historic. He says Iraq is on a long road to liberty and peace. But he says difficult work remains to establish democracy in Iraq.

In the News, in VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty.