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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
An Islamic Republic of Iraq?
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Iraqi Shia leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
Many Shia leaders want to mould Iraq into a religious state

Is Iraq moving, inch by inch, towards becoming an Islamic republic? it is a prospect that is as unsettling for many Iraqis as it is for George Bush in the White House.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a centralised and largely secular state.

Now, if the Shia religious parties get their way, it will be a decentralised state with a pronounced Islamic identity.

The draft of the new constitution describes Islam as "a main source" of legislation and stipulates that no law may contradict Islamic principles.

It also says a group of provinces is entitled to form a "region", which can then expect a specified share of the national budget.

Federalism

All this amounts to a radical change, and inevitably it is arousing strong passions.

The two groups who dominate the new Iraq - the Kurds and the Shia religious parties - have an obvious interest in breaking with the past.

Iraq's Sunni neighbours find all of this troubling. The fear is that a weak multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state will go the way of Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s - and descend into civil war

The Kurds want to cement, and if possible extend, the autonomy they have enjoyed in the north for over a decade.

The Shia religious parties want to reverse the secularising policies of Saddam, and they want the mainly Shia south to get a bigger slice of the area's oil wealth.

Some Shia are even calling for a "super-region" stretching from Baghdad to the border with Kuwait and embracing the country's biggest oilfields.

This kind of federalism - with an autonomous Kurdistan in the north and a big oil-rich Shia "region" in the south - leaves the minority Sunni Arabs appalled.

They fear being left with a rump mini-state bereft of oil. They also fear the eventual break-up of the country.

At the same time, secular-minded Iraqis - whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd - are deeply concerned about the direction the country is taking.

In many ways, Iraq is already dramatically different from the place it was just a few years ago.

Mixed marriages between Sunni and Shia, once taken for granted, are becoming problematic.

In many parts of the country, women dare not walk bare-headed in the street.

And reports from parts of the lawless north-west paint a grim picture of Taleban-style rule by radical Sunni militants.

Worried neighbours

Iraq's Sunni neighbours find all of this troubling.

There is no tradition in the Arab world of a successful decentralised state.

The fear is that a weak multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state will go the way of Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s - and descend into civil war.

Sunni rulers in Riyadh, Amman, Cairo and elsewhere believe the one country to benefit from the disintegration of Iraq is Shia Iran.

George Bush, meanwhile, is faced with some unpalatable choices.

He is determined to stick to a tight political timetable which would enable him to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq next year.

But will his rush to come up with an "exit strategy" force him to abandon the aspiration to create a modern secular democracy out of the ashes of the Saddam dictatorship?



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