Escalating violence, increasing opposition to the interim constitution and American occupation, growing unease by humanitarian workers and contractors to remain in Iraq, and the uncertainty of who will assume power on July 1—all threaten to derail any chance for democratic governance in Iraq. As Iraq moves toward sovereignty and the transition of power, much difficult work lies ahead. Many Iraqis are laboring tirelessly for sustained peace, one that would embrace an inclusive and representative government, energized economy, and engaged civil society.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority intends to transfer power to the Iraqis on June 30, but tough questions remain. While Washington is eager to shift responsibilities to Iraqis and the United Nations and further empower the work of nongovernmental organizations in reconstruction and institution-building, it is imperative to improve the security situation in the country. The political process now underway requires the building of a strong civil society that can support the representative government, modern economy, and sustained peace that many Iraqis desire.

A Matter of Politics
A group of Iraqi representatives who visited the Wilson Center on March 12 cited three components crucial in determining the path Iraq takes in the coming months: security, assistance, and timing. They underscored the importance of security in ensuring stability and progress in Iraq. Another theme emerging from this visit was the need to instill in Iraqis a true understanding of the tenets of democracy, such as consensus-building, free speech, respect for religion, and support for women's rights. Better education on these concepts can transform Iraqi support for the notion of democracy into support for implementing and incorporating these principles.

Women on the Move
Nowhere is the commitment toward a more stable and peaceful Iraq better exemplified than by a group of women leaders facing an uphill battle for political representation. Despite great obstacles, both in terms of personal security risks and logistical hurdles, these women remain committed to the cause of ensuring women's voices are heard in the new Iraq.

In March 2004, a group of prominent Iraqi representatives visited the United States to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women conference at the United Nations and to consult with senior officials in Washington. Among those in this group, Rajaa Khuzai, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), said advocacy efforts by women's groups were instrumental in achieving political representation. Although they had lobbied for a mandated 40 percent quota of seats for women in the legislature, they did succeed in convincing the IGC to stipulate in the interim constitution that a minimum of 25 percent of the seats should be reserved for women. The draft also includes an explicit provision stating Iraqis have equal rights regardless of gender. She said, though, it remains unclear whether this provision will remain in effect after power is transferred to an undetermined entity.

"The concern now is how to fill the seats with eligible and capable women who have the ability to fill the chair," said Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founder of the Iraqi Women's Higher Council. "We need training and the upcoming year is critical. Women's participation in politics is new, which is compounded by the fact that most women are not involved in political parties."

Other speakers voiced concern over ambiguities in the interim constitution, including the wording suggesting that 25 percent was a target, rather than a quota, and raised questions regarding the role of Islamic law. The visiting group also included Wisal Said and Eman Alwan, counselor and second secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Amal Ma'malchi, nominee for deputy minister of Higher Education.

In April and November 2003, the Wilson Center and Women Waging Peace brought more than 50 Iraqi women (including Minister for Municipalities and Public Works Nasreen Berwari) to Washington for a series of intensive discussions. The women represented many different political, ethnic, and religious groups, and included expatriates living in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Many of these women testified to a lack of consideration for their political rights and social needs. They also identified key ways in which women could be included in four vital sectors of Iraq's administration and circulated their proposals throughout the CPA in Baghdad, the IGC, and the authorities in Washington.

Their recommendations included the international community encouraging strong women's representation in the leadership of donor bodies; abolishing laws impeding women's employment; ensuring the appointment of qualified, well-trained female judges throughout Iraq; and hiring Iraqi women for reconstruction tasks.

In Memoriam
On March 9, gunmen in Iraq killed Fern Holland, Salwa Ali Oumashi, and Robert Zangas, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The three were killed as they were returning from the Zainab al-Hawra'a Center for Women's Rights in Karbala. Holland, a 33-year-old from Oklahoma, and Oumashi, a 38-year-old Iraqi, were fervent advocates for human rights and women's advancement in the new Iraq. Their efforts were well known in Iraq and the United States.

On March 25, more than 50 of their friends and colleagues attended a memorial service at the Wilson Center hosted by the Conflict Prevention Project and Middle East Program. Conflict Prevention Project Director Anita Sharma said, "Fern and Salwa believed strongly in the importance of including women in every political decision shaping Iraq's future. They never let up the effort, neither in Iraq nor the United States, and they were instrumental in ensuring the inclusion of women in the interim constitution."

Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, described the "passionate heroine" she encountered as Holland shared "the latest from the ground" from Iraq and lauded Holland for the impact she had made on women's rights. Dobriansky said Holland was instrumental in founding the Hilla Women's Center in Iraq as well as securing equipment for the center and mentoring individual Iraqi women.

Zainab Salbi, president of Women for Women International, said Iraqis recognized the contributions of Holland and her co-worker by declaring a three-day mourning period following their deaths. She said the women's centers would remain open, despite the obvious risks, and more centers would be added.

A View from Jordan
Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marwan Jamil Muasher said Arab states should actively help Iraqi citizens. "If the objective is to shorten the time of the occupation, then we all need to take an active role in helping the Iraqis during this time," said Muasher, speaking at a March 11 Director's Forum. Jordan's stance is that a political process in Iraq must be accompanied by a rebuilding of Iraqi security capability to preserve the unity of the country. For this reason, said Muasher, Jordan took on the job of training the Iraqi police force and some military personnel. Muasher warned that societal collapse would throw the whole region into an era of instability. He stressed the importance of helping Iraqis advance toward a system that not only respects the rule of the majority, but also respects the rights of the minority.

Toward the Future
Rebuilding political and economic systems and enabling conditions for security, well-being, and justice require expensive and long-lasting commitments. In addition, written laws will have to be translated into practice. Better security, training, and constant engagement are all are elements that, if applied correctly, can advance Iraqi society and put Iraq on the road toward full sovereignty, stability, and prosperity.