By SAFAAL MANSOOR, TALAR NADIR and ZAINEB NAJI
INSTITUTE FOR WAR & amp; PEACE REPORTING
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi legal experts are urging the newly elected members of the National Assembly to put political rights and the protection of minorities at the top of their agenda as they prepare to draft the country's new constitution.
The transitional body has until Aug. 15 to write the constitution, which will replace the Transitional Administration Law, adopted while the U.S.-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge. The document will then be put to a public referendum on Oct. 15.
Atty. Abdul-Wahib Majid predicts that the final draft of the constitution will follow a moderate path.
"It will be secular and moderate, not like the tough constitution of Iran and not like the easy-going constitution of Turkey," he said.
Suad Salman Dawood, Basra's first female attorney, urged those writing the constitution to ensure it guarantees political rights and freedom of expression and gives Iraqi women "the position they deserve."
"Women and children are the pillars of society and they must be taken care of and their rights protected in the constitution," she said.
Iraqi human rights minister Bakhtiar Amin said his ministry will help guide assembly members in their work, particularly when it comes to meeting international standards for ensuring minority, political and social rights.
Amin expects the new constitution to recognize many international agreements, such as the U.N. convention outlawing the use of torture and the Rome Convention that established the International Criminal Court.
Atty. Muhammed al-Baithani warned that Iraqis are likely to reject any document that fails to address the country's diverse religious and ethnic make-up.
"Then we will have to start from scratch, and there will be a big political vacuum," said al-Baithani.
Elsewhere, the lawyers say the constitution must separate the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, so they cannot interfere with one another.
The head of Basra's union of lawyers, Ali al-Kabi, said these basic principles were present in the previous constitution but were ignored by former President Saddam Hussein.
He stressed the importance of ensuring independence of the country's courts.
"The Iraqi judiciary must ... not be subject to interference by any party in the state," he said.
Most legal experts also agreed that the constitution should provide for civilian control over the armed forces.
Some believe the issue of federalism is the most pressing question facing the new assembly, with both the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south pressing to retain power at the regional level.
"The constitution should include and define the principle of federalism, especially for the southern provinces consisting of Basra, Nassariyah and Amarah," al-Baithani said.
Sairan Taha Ahmed, a law professor at Sulaimaniyah University in the north, said the constitution should guarantee the right of self-determination for the Kurds, who control the three provinces of Dahuk, Sulaimaniyah and Arbil. These three provinces have been outside Baghdad's control since the 1991 Gulf War.
"We should work for an independent federalism," she said. "The boundaries of Kurdistan's regional authority should be set in every aspect."
Sady Pira, the Mosul representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two ruling parties in the region, said the status of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk is likely to be a top issue. He said Kurds would push the National Assembly to implement an article that allows Kurds deported from Kirkuk under Saddam's regime to return to their homes.
But he admitted that the assembly would also have to find a way to compensate the Arabs whom Saddam resettled in Kirkuk in an attempt to alter its ethnic make-up.
"We can't just kick those people out, but the Kurds have the right to go back to their homes, because they were there first," he said.
X Safaal Mansoor, Talar Nadir and Zaineb Naji are journalists in Iraq who write for the Institute for War & amp; Peace Reporting, London.