The proposed Iraqi constitution, assuming its drafters can ever get it finished, is not in itself a bad document, certainly not as bad as its U.S. critics claim.
It is a blueprint for what the Iraqis —and the Bush administration — say they want, "a democratic, federal, parliamentary republic" with guarantees of basic human rights and civil liberties.
This is not to say the draft constitution is without flaws and potential problems. There is the issue of federalism, which some see as a prelude to the dissolution of Iraq. Maybe so, but a federal structure is seen as an important protection by two of the nation’s three main constituencies: the Shiites and Kurds who were severely oppressed by the old order.
And it is murky how much of an Islamic state the new Iraq will be. The constitution makes Islam the official state religion and "a basic source of legislation" — whether it was to be "a" or "the" was a matter of contention. The document further spells out that no law may be passed that "contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." Almost as an afterthought, it specifies full rights and freedoms for other "creeds and religious practices."
The preamble specifically calls on the nation to "pay attention to the rights of women." But the constitution also specifies that the judges on an extremely powerful Supreme Federal Court be expert in both secular law and sharia, or Islamic law, meaning that clerics might have a decisive say in who sits on the court.
The constitution outlaws the "Saddamist Baath Party" and its symbols. It’s not a healthy practice to start singling out groups. And since the Baath Party was mostly Sunni, the draft is bound to stoke the anger and resentment of Sunnis who feel they are being shut out of the new government.
The draft suffers, too, from spongy wording. The constitution guarantees the basic freedom of speech, press, assembly and peaceful protest only so long as they do not "violate public order and morality" — whatever that means.
A constitution is, after all is said and done, a piece of paper. The Soviet constitution of 1936, under which Stalin murdered and imprisoned millions, contained all the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution plus many others — guaranteed employment, rest and leisure, medical care, education and housing.
Iraq’s draft constitution’s greatest hurdle is whether a nation with no tradition of democracy can create, almost from a standing start, a moderate governing class comfortable with the idea of checks and balances, compromises and tradeoffs.
The success of this constitution will lie with the people administering and interpreting it, and if Iraqis truly want to live in an orderly, democratic society, this draft document is not a bad place to start.