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The constitution and the Kurds

THERE ARE NOT many places in Iraq where the locals want to celebrate American Independence Day. But, in Iraq's self-governing Kurdistan region, the newly elected government decided to host a Fourth of July party for their American allies. Top coalition officers were invited along with US civilians, food and drinks ordered (the secular Kurds serve and drink alcohol), and the Kurdistan prime minister had prepared his speech. Then America's top diplomat in the region delivered an ultimatum: She would not attend unless the Kurds flew Iraq's flag at the party. The Kurds refused and canceled the party.

The current Iraqi flag was chosen by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to signify the unity of Arab lands. For the non-Arab Kurds the flag is not only a symbol of their second class status but they also associate it with the atrocities-- including use of poison gas-- of the former regime. Many of Iraq's Arab leaders have been sensitive to Kurdish concerns. When they visit the region, they do not make a fuss over the flag.

For Iraq's Kurds, the flag episode epitomizes America's ingratitude for their role as an ally in the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and as the strongest supporter of US postwar policies. They note that American diplomats have no qualms about calling on Shi'ite politicians who display portraits of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and that the United States has pushed for the inclusion of Sunni Arabs, many former Ba'athists, in the constitution drafting committee. Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafaari was warmly received at the White House even though his party, Dawa, was on the State Department terrorist list until a few years ago for the 1982 suicide bombing of the US embassy in Kuwait.

US indifference to Kurdish sensibilities could have far reaching consequences. The Kurds are engaged in a struggle with the Shi'ite majority of Iraq's constitution drafting committee over the principles that will guide the new Iraq.

The majority draft would make Iraq a ''federal Islamic republic." Rights of women would be sharply restricted as Islamic law replaces Iraq's relatively progressive civil code on matters of inheritance, divorce, and child custody. The document is anti-Jewish, denying Iraqi Jews rights granted other Iraqis. The Shi'ite majority is even proposing to incorporate the ''marjah" -- Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric -- into the constitution, a step that could give the Ayatollah Sistani powers similar to those Khomeini exercised in the first decade of Iran's Islamic Republic.

The Kurds oppose all these measures. They are secular and insist that any reference to the Islamic character of Iraq be balanced by a declaration that no law can violate fundamental human rights. They are proud of the progress that women have made in the 14 years of Kurdish self-rule in the north of Iraq and do not want it rolled back. They share none of the antipathy Arab Iraqis feel toward the Jews.

With a population almost unanimously in favor of independence, Kurdistan leaders insist that Iraq have a federal structure that will allow them to retain their secular, Western-oriented political system even if the rest of Iraq falls under the sway of the religious parties. They are alarmed by growing Iranian influence in Baghdad and in the Shi'ite south, and see a strong, self-governing Kurdistan as a barrier to enlarging Iran's influence.

No constitution can be approved unless the Kurds go along, and the Kurds want to be in the position to walk away from a constitution that is illiberal and too centralized. But, instead of support from the Bush administration, they feel intense pressure to make compromises so as to meet the Aug. 15 deadline.

While the Bush administration professes a hands-off policy toward constitutional deliberations, it has been lobbying hard against a provision that would give Iraq's regions control over natural resources. Having been dependent on payments from Baghdad in the past, the Kurds know that meaningful self-government requires control over their own petroleum. The Bush administration apparently believes a Shi'ite region in the south would be less favorable toward US oil companies than the Shi'ite-run Oil Ministry in Baghdad, but in reality there is unlikely to be a difference. To the dismay of the Kurds, there has been no similar American engagement with regard to the anti-Jewish or antiwoman provisions of the proposed constitution.

The United States should take a genuine hands-off approach toward the new constitution. The content is far more important than meeting the deadline for its completion, and the Bush administration should not punish America's best friends in Iraq if they walk away from a document that blatantly contradicts the democratic values President Bush now says are the reason for our continued presence in the country.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, is senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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