Iraq: Becoming an Islamic Republic?

Joel Mowbray

10/17/2003 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

As the new Iraqi government takes shape, there is growing agreement among many in the administration that the country is likely to become officially an Islamic republic when the new constitution is drafted in coming months, according to informed sources in Iraq and several administration officials.

  With the United Nations resolution resolved, attention will soon shift to drafting a constitution, which seems unlikely to include a provision declaring Iraq a secular democracy.

  Conversations with various officials reveal that civilian administrator Paul Bremer and State Department officials—who serve as his principal advisors—are not planning to push for a clause in the new constitution that would guarantee a secular democracy.  This, despite the disturbing rise in notoriety—and possibly popularity—of Moktada al-Sadr, whom the New York Times describes as a “radical, anti-American Shiite cleric.”

  State Department officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity, stress that their department would work to ensure passage of laws guaranteeing religious freedom to supplement any constitution that named Islam as Iraq’s official religion.  But as many critics of such an approach point out, laws typically are much more ephemeral and less permanent than constitutional provisions. 

  Even with legal protections, religious minorities such as Assyrian Christians and the Yezidis (who are neither Muslim nor Christian nor Jewish) have great reason to worry if Iraq becomes an Islamic state, not the least reason being the history of persecution experienced by other religious minorities throughout the Muslim world.  Bremer’s statements that religious liberty will be ensured—though he has made such comments while allowing that Iraq could become an Islamic Republic—should offer some consolation, but the Islamists on the Iraqi Governing Council should not.

  Drawing largely upon the advice and counsel of State Department officials—who comprise the bulk of Bremer’s support staff—the civilian administrator placed a number of avowed Islamists on the IGC.  When Powell ventured to Iraq last month, the only member of the IGC he met with individually (aside from the Secretary of State’s counterpart) was Islamist Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, former spokesman in the 1990’s for the Dawa Party, which is responsible for the 1983 bombing of the embassy in Kuwait that killed six and injured dozens.

  Pressed several weeks ago by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) at a hearing about whether or not the U.S. would insist that Iraq become a secular democracy, Bremer responded, “the Iraqis are writing this constitution, not me.”  Which prompted one frustrated administration official to ask, “Who is Bremer referring to, the Islamists he stacked the council with?”

  The State Department has long been obsessed with stability and not challenging conventional wisdom.  With the apparent rise of Islamists—at least that’s the perception created by the media—State is more likely to accommodate them than to ward them off with even stronger guarantees of secular governance in the constitution.  And the ever-present violence—particularly the assassination of one the 25 members on the IGC—makes that much less likely that the secularists on the council will fight vigorously for an Islam-free constitution.

  Further complicating matters, it is unclear at this point, of course, who is really controlling Iraq policy.  From the Washington perspective, it is National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice—or apparently now Donald Rumsfeld again.  But from the standpoint of the people implementing policy and making the day-to-day decisions that often have greater collective impact than larger policy directives, State Department personnel are clearly in the driver’s seat.  The Department of Defense has few civilians in Iraq—by the Pentagon’s own choice—leaving most of the key U.S positions to be filled by State Department careerists.

  Before Bremer took the reins this spring, State Department officials in Iraq had placed several top Baathists—meaning Saddam loyalists—in positions of power, in direct conflict with the President’s goal of de-Baathification.  With those same people on the ground today, a legitimate question is: how effectively—or vigorously—will they fight to guarantee religious liberty for millions of non-Muslim Iraqis? 

  And if Iraq becomes an official Muslim state, the most important question may be: Will Islamists hold enough sway to make Iraq an incubator for Islamic terrorism?

  Warns one administration official, “We are heading down a very dangerous path.”