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October 16, 2005

In this Iraqi vote, the results are not known in advance

Howar Ziad, the Iraqi Ambassador to Canada, examines the referendum vote

Friday, October 14 Globe and Mail

Just 2 years ago, the people were under the thumb of Saddam Husseins fascist regime. Today, they consider a document based on five core principles: diversity; decentralization; consent; protection of individual, minority and women's rights; and electoral legitimacy. For Canadians, such principles are self-evident. For Iraqis, they're a revelation.

This constitution accepts the fact that Iraq is a multiethnic, multireligious country. No longer will a false uniformity be imposed on Iraqis.

Our country, like Canada, is bilingual, and Iraq is the first state in the Islamic Middle East to recognize two official languages -- Arabic and Kurdish. As well, other languages are protected. To safeguard that diversity, the new constitution makes Iraq a decentralized state with a federal, not a central, government. That does not mean, as some claim, that Iraq is being divided up. Instead, by giving Iraqis the democratic, federal self-rule that many have long aspired to, the constitution's drafters have found a formula to keep Iraq intact.

For decades, both the Kingdom of Iraq and the post-1958 Republic of Iraq imposed a highly centralized state that rendered the country unstable creating the very divisions it was supposed to avoid.

As to the much misunderstood provisions on natural resources, the draft constitution aims to prevent the abuse of Iraq's natural endowment that, in the past, gave us a country of poverty and palaces, a country that could manufacture chemical weapons but could not provide running water to its people. To exert the necessary control over these resources, the constitution gives the provinces the powers to have a say in the development of natural resources.

Contrary to some commentary, the draft constitution protects individual freedom of conscience and the rights of women and minorities. The principles of basic human rights are recognized. Not only are minority identities mentioned and minority languages protected, minorities are represented in the new Iraqi parliament. In January's parliamentary elections, the three most successful lists, which together won 88 per cent of the total vote, all ran ethnically and religiously diverse lists.

As for women, the draft constitution requires that women fill at least one quarter of the seats in future parliaments. Personal status law is a matter of free choice, contrary to some people's misreading of the constitution. As for the much-commented-on provision of Islamic law experts on the supreme federal court, the draft constitution requires that the issue be affirmed by a two-thirds majority of all parliamentary deputies.

Consent is the foundation of democracy, which is why the draft constitution explicitly defines Iraq as a state whose legitimacy derives from the freely given will of its people. The preamble states that Iraq is a "free union."

The process that has led to this draft constitution has included elections and peaceful negotiations and compromise by the people's democratically elected representatives. Iraqis will vote three times this year. They voted in January; they'll vote tomorrow, and again in December, when new parliamentary elections will take place.

The electoral process may seem onerous, but it has led to two fundamental changes in Iraqi politics: The results of democratic elections are not challenged, and power changes hands peacefully. The interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, lost the January vote and willingly handed over power to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, which won the largest number of votes.

The only opposition in Iraq to this process has come from a minority of Iraqis who have chosen to express themselves with bombs rather than ballots. These killers are largely drawn from a minority within Iraq's Sunni Arab community. They are supremacists who believe that they, and their specific ethnic-religious community, have an inherent right to rule. Unlike white South Africans, who eventually conceded the immorality of apartheid when confronted with the dignity and courage of a leader such as Nelson Mandela, the Iraqi supremacists have rejected all opportunities for dialogue and democracy. Yet in Iraq, as in South Africa, the right of the majority to rule has been confirmed through elections.

As to whether the constitution will be ratified tomorrow, it is not for an ambassador to make a prediction. It is -- for a change in Iraqi history -- for the people to decide.

Howar Ziad, Iraq's ambassador to Canada, served as the Kurdish representative to the United Nations from 1999 to 2004

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