Kurdish demands trigger fears of civil war in Iraq

By Justin Huggler in Baghdad

01 March 2004

Independent

The United States-appointed Governing Council in Iraq remained deadlocked yesterday over the role of Islam in Iraq and Kurdish demands for federalism, after failing to meet a deadline for agreeing an interim constitution for the country.

Urgent talks continued after the council failed to meet the deadline of midnight on Saturday, underlining the increasingly dangerous divisions in Iraqi society. The main sticking point is the role of Islam, amid concerns that many on the council want to institute sharia law. Iraqi women's groups are warning that women may lose freedoms they enjoyed even under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Despite council members' attempts to downplay their divisions, it appeared they had failed to agree on any of the most contentious issues facing Iraq as the US handover date looms.

There was believed to be no agreement on Kurdish demands to protect their autonomy in the north of Iraq, and no agreement on a mechanism for sharing power between the three main sectors of Iraqi society: the Shia Arab majority, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds.

The protracted wrangling over these issues will only increase fears of a civil war.

For many Iraqis, the constitutional wrangling has served to highlight the lack of democracy in the Americans' planned hand-over of sovereignty. Iraq's new constitution is being drawn up by an unelected council that was hand-picked by the Americans and has very little support among ordinary Iraqis. So loathed are some of the council members that many say they could not walk down a street in Baghdad without being killed.

Yet the council is refusing to stick to the American script. Many of its members openly back the introduction of sharia - which would be embarrassing for the Americans. The key battle is over a move to make divorce and inheritance rights subject to Islamic law. Under Saddam, women had equal divorce and inheritance rights to men. The new law would take away those rights.

The council voted the new measures into law, but after a concerted effort led by Iraqi women, it was overturned in a new vote. Several Shia council members stormed out in protest at the reversal of the decision. Discussions reportedly only resumed after Paul Bremer, the American chief administrator in Iraq, joined the council.

Mr Bremer has, in effect, threatened to veto any law that includes the inheritance and divorce provisions. All council decisions have to be signed by him before they are recognised as laws, and he has said he will not sign any law that includes them. One Shia leader, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has made vague threats of armed resistance if Mr Bremer vetoes the law.

Discussions are reportedly deadlocked on how to share the presidency. The original proposal was for the presidency to rotate between the Shia, Sunni and Kurds, but the Shia are demanding a greater share to reflect the size of their population.

Shia and Sunni oppose the Kurds' demands for autonomy in the north. More contentious still are Kurdish demands to include the city of Kirkuk in their area, which contains Iraq's richest oil reserves.