Optimism for constitution still high despite differences on key issues

? Framers of Iraq’s new constitution said Wednesday they will meet an August deadline despite a move by Sunni Arabs to suspend work after the killings of two colleagues. Some Shiites are pushing a proposal that could erode women’s rights.

Vast gulfs remain among the positions of Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni members on key issues, including Iraq’s identity as an Arab nation, the role of Islam and federalism, some committee members said privately.

Shiites want a greater role for Islam in civil law – a proposal that could erode women’s rights in such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Under Islamic law, a woman inherits half of what a man would. Men also have the power when it comes to initiating divorces. Iraq has been operating under a secular 1959 civil status law that treated every person according to his sect.

“We reject the changes … because some Islamic parties want to kidnap the rights of women in Iraq,” said Yanar Mohammed, head of Women’s Freedom in Iraq Movement. “We reject such attempts because women should be full citizens with full rights, not semi-human beings.”

U.S. toll update

As of Wednesday, July 20, 2005, at least 1,772 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,361 died as a result of hostile action. The figures include five military civilians.

However, Mariam al-Rayyes, a Shiite member, said Islam will be the state religion and a “main source” for legislation in the constitution.

“It gives women all rights and freedoms as long as they don’t contradict with our values,” she said. “Concerning marriage, inheritance and divorce, this is civil status laws. That should not contradict with religious values.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said a U.S. reaction to the proposed restrictions on women’s rights would be premature “until the Iraqis present officially to the people something for their consideration.”

The chairman of the committee drafting the new constitution told reporters that subcommittees dealing with specific articles would finish their work within the next two days and submit their reports for review.

Humam Hammoudi, a Shiite cleric, said he was confident the committee would finish the final draft by the end of the month so that parliament could meet an Aug. 15 deadline for approving it. The document then goes to a referendum by mid-October.

His optimism came despite a move by 12 Sunni Arab members to suspend participation in the committee to protest poor security after the assassination of two fellow Sunnis helping draft the constitution.

Committee member Mijbil Issa and committee adviser Dhamin Hussein al-Obeidi were gunned down Tuesday as they left a restaurant in Baghdad’s Karradah district. A bodyguard also was killed.

Issa was among 15 Sunni Arabs appointed to the committee last month. Sunnis form the core of Iraq’s insurgency, and giving them a greater voice in preparing the constitution was seen as key to quelling violence.

But two Sunnis quit the committee because of insurgent threats. Kamal Hamdoun, a Sunni member, said the 12 remaining members would meet today with Sunni leaders to decide what to do.

“Our membership has been suspended temporarily until tomorrow when we meet the committee that chose us,” he said. “We don’t have security.”

At a funeral service for Issa on Wednesday, a hard-line Sunni cleric said the Sunnis agreed to participate in drafting the charter “under pressure from others,” presumably including the United States.

“A constitution cannot be written under (U.S.) occupation,” Harith al-Dhari said. “This is what Sunnis got from joining the constitution committee. Their members are being killed.”