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ICC Note: ICC has anxiously watching the developments in Iraq and has putting out warnings for over a year about the the power of Sistani and where he would take an Iraqi constitution.

Iraqis far apart over role of Islam

With a week left to finish Iraq ‘s new constitution, Kurds and Shiites appear to be hardening positions.

By Dan Murphy | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BAGHDAD – Rather than huddling over constitutional drafts, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari made a pilgrimage over the weekend to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf , the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq ‘s most powerful Shiite cleric.

“Ayatollah al-Sistani does not want to impose dictates on drafting the constitution, but according to my knowledge he hopes that Islam becomes the main source of legislation,” Mr. Jaafari told reporters.

While Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders have sought compromise on issues of national identity and federalism to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for the new constitution, Jaafari’s statement indicates that the majority Shiites may be hardening on one of the most contentious issues: the role of Islam in the government.

And while Iraq ‘s political leaders have expressed hope they would meet next week’s deadline, if the prime minister has accurately portrayed the views of Sistani (the quiet power behind every major decision made since the US-occupied Iraq ), it’s likely to mean that the US hope of installing a secular, liberal democracy in Iraq is receding from view.

Though the US has waded into the debate, with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad saying there “can be no compromise” on “equal rights before the law for all Iraqis regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sect,” the Shiite political parties insist a much bigger role for Islam is the answer to many of Iraq ‘s ills.

“I don’t see where the concern is – all rights are guaranteed under Islam,” says Saad Jawad Qindeel, the head of political affairs for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two main Shiite parties. “We are willing to meet all stipulations for protecting individual rights, but Islam is a big part of the character of the Iraqi people.”

Mr. Qindeel says Shiite parties are willing to compromise – but in ways that are unlikely to satisfy the secular Kurds. He says that they’d prefer that Islam be the “only source” of Iraqi legislation. But they would be willing to live with a constitution that calls Islam “a source” of legislation, if a further stipulation is added: “That no legislation be enacted that violates the basic truths of Islam.”

Sistani’s push for Islamic law

With Sistani apparently weighing in on the issue, the Shiite position on Islam is unlikely to shift. The reclusive cleric doesn’t like meddling directly in politics, but his rare pronouncements carry vast weight with millions of Iraqi Shiites.

“If Ayatollah al-Sistani suggests that he wants Islam in the constitution, that will harden the position of those who want a religious-oriented state,” says Tom Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, who has met with members of Iraq ‘s parliament on the constitution and is closely following the drafting process.

“It’s possible that the law would be innocuous and merely say that no legislation may violate Islam. The big problem is, who gets to determine that? Religious courts? Whose?” says Mr. Palmer.

An aide to Talabani said the Kurds will need to see major efforts to increase the Kurdish population of Kirkuk in the interim before an Oct. 15 national vote to ratify the constitution. If that doesn’t happen, they’ll still have the right to reject the constitution and begin the process again.