Jewish World Review March 12, 2004 / 19 Adar, 5764

Robert Robb

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In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism | Afghanistan adopted a new constitution in January. Iraq approved a transitional administrative law this week.

So, what kind of governments are being established to replace the repressive regimes swept away by American military power?

The Iraqi transitional law states that "(t)he system of government in Iraq shall be republican, federal, democratic and pluralistic ."

The key attribute is federal. The transitional law purposely sets up a weak and divided central government. Most of the governing authority is devolved to local governments.

The central government is largely limited to foreign affairs, national security, trade and the monetary system.

The presidency is vested in a three-person council (a president and two deputies) selected by the unicameral legislature, the National Assembly.

The Presidency Council has to be approved as a slate by a two-thirds vote. The Council can only act unanimously. And its principal function is to choose a prime minister, who actually runs the government.

This is clearly an attempt to bridge the deep ethnic, religious and geographic divisions in the country, between the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites

And the glue intended to hold the country together is oil. The transitional law nationalizes the country's natural resources and provides for distribution of oil revenues proportionate to population.

That may be good politics. But it's not the most productive way to leverage oil for the country's economic diversification and advancement. While this is a transitional document, it's intended to lock in the federal system and large devolution of authority to local governments. An elected National Assembly is to draft a permanent constitution, subject to a public referendum no later than Oct. 15, 2005. But even if approved by a national majority, the new constitution will not go into effect if disapproved by two-thirds of the voters in at least three Iraqi states.

Shiite clerics have criticized the transitional law, saying it lacks legitimacy because it wasn't adopted by an elected body.

But the real objection appears to be the federal nature of the system and large devolution of authority to local governments. And that's not good news.

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It's hard to see how the country is kept together except through significant devolution. And if the country breaks up, the fight over oil could be bloody.

The transitional law does recite the individual rights governments should protect, including freedom of religion, speech and property and equality under the law. But Islam is declared the official state religion and laws contrary to it are prohibited.

On the ground, theocratic influence appears much stronger than political leadership. And where the Shiite clerics are headed is unclear.

In Afghanistan, the theocratic influence is more overt and official. As in Iraq, Islam is the official state religion and secular law has to be compatible with it.

But the Afghan constitution goes much further. The president of the country has to be a Muslim. Political parties that aren't compatible with Islam are forbidden. Public education is to be based on Islam.

The state is to eliminate family practices "contrary to the principles" of Islam. And much of the governmental judicial system is based on Islamic law.

In short, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is moving toward a truly secular and pluralistic government.

But they do appear to be moving toward representative governments.

Elections are scheduled in Afghanistan for this summer, and for Iraq by the end of January, 2005.

Theocratic state influence is not, per se, contrary to U.S. interests, particularly if leavened by representative government. Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state. England, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland all have official state religions. None keep American security officials awake at night.

The Bush administration has overstated the extent to which American security is dependent on the spread of democratic governments that respect and protect individual rights. With respect to security, the intent of other nations is more important than their character.

Nevertheless, the initial steps toward the rule of law in both Afghanistan and Iraq are cause for hope, if not yet optimism.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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