The deaths of about 150 Shi'ite worshippers in Baghdad and Karbala on March 2—Iraq's bloodiest day since Saddam Hussein's fall—have overshadowed the release of the interim constitution. Urging for calm, leaders said the suicide bombs and mortar attacks were intended to ignite a civil war.

Under the best conditions, ensuring public security, rebuilding the economy, reconstructing infrastructure, strengthening civil society, and encouraging democratic governance are daunting tasks. Against the backdrop of ongoing turmoil, the next four months leading up to the transition of power will be fraught with difficulties but remain extremely crucial to the future of peace in Iraq.

Iraq's interim constitution, released by the US-backed Governing Council, includes 64 articles which enshrine freedom of speech and religion, allow for civilian control of the military, set a timeline for elections before the end of January 2005, and support a "transitional national assembly" to draft a permanent constitution next year. There remain contentious debates about issues such as the role of Islam, representation for women in government, family law, and Kurdish autonomy. The interim constitution declares Islam will be Iraq's official religion but it will be a source of legislation instead of its primary foundation. Furthermore, the draft includes an explicit provision that declares all Iraqis equal in their rights regardless of gender.

The composition of the 18-member exclusively male constitutional drafting committee won't be replicated in future deliberations, due in large part to the vocal advocacy efforts by women in Iraq and their international supporters. Although women's groups lobbied for quotas of 40 percent of seats for women in the legislature, the interim constitution recommends only 25 percent of places to women.

Over the last several months, the Wilson Center's Conflict Prevention Project and Middle East Program have focused their programming on the important role of women in Iraqi reconstruction. Iraqi women, from those involved in city councils to members of the national Governing Council, have shown extraordinary ability and dynamism throughout the various Wilson Center events.

The latest meeting in this series, "Preparing for the Post-Post War Reconstruction in Iraq: What Has Been Accomplished and What Lies Ahead," held on February 26, featured Nesreen Berwari, Iraq's Minister for Municipalities and Public Works. Wilson Center President Lee Hamilton praised Berwari saying, "We are hopeful that the example of women like Nesreen Berwari will lead to even greater participation by women in Iraq's future government."

Before assuming her current post, Berwari was the Minister of Reconstruction and Development for the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. She was also a member of the "Economy and Infrastructure" working group at the U.S. State Department's Future of Iraq Project.

During her presentation, Berwari reported that nearly one year after the start of the war, Iraqi ministries are functioning, laws regulating business and finance have been established, markets are flourishing, and oil production has reached pre-war levels.

Nonetheless, the Coalition and the Iraqi people face formidable obstacles that threaten a peaceful transition to democracy. As the devastating attacks on the Shi'ite holy day of Ashoura illustrate, the Coalition has been unable to ensure a safe and secure environment within Iraq. Life has not returned to "normal" in Iraq—a general feeling of unease pervades the country. Economic investment remains low and normal routines of life have been altered to accommodate long lines at gas pumps and security checkpoints. In places where kidnappings occur frequently, children must be accompanied to schools, while women are escorted to the market and have taken to donning abayas in an effort to become less visible.

Despite these obstacles, Minister Berwari remains committed to encouraging the security, growth and well being of her country. Berwari's ministry is responsible for all municipal services, except for electricity and telecommunications; it is responsible for safe drinking water and environmental sanitation, municipal roadwork including traffic controls, and urban planning, land management, and zoning.

During her talk, Berwari said, "We have a tremendous amount of work to do to rebuild, reform, and reinvigorate the public service infrastructure. To bring the three imperative services of water, waste water, and solid waste up to standard throughout the country would require more than twenty billion dollars over ten years."

Saddam's regime undermined the rights of all Iraqis—including women. Further setbacks for women followed the first Gulf War, particularly in health care, education and employment. Men and women left universities, while high unemployment in manufacturing pushed men into fields traditionally occupied by women. Today the UN estimates that women make up only 20 percent of the work force.

As reported by Berwari, most women in Iraq today advocate a reinstatement of their rights. Yet some lawmakers advocate legislating the behavior of women. IGC resolution 137, for example, would have reversed many of the rights and privileges enjoyed currently by Iraqi women if it had not been repealed by a vote of the Council as a whole.

"The passage of IGC resolution-137, especially the highly questionable process by which it was passed, demonstrates how the democratic process can be so easily usurped to threaten a majority that democracy is intended to serve," Berwari said. "It would be a pity if we liberate Iraq only to imprison its women."

In the lengthy process of democratization, local and international actors must address key components of good governance in order to aid the transition from violent conflict to democracy. For effective implementation of these structures, women's participation is essential.

The advancement of women's issues is frequently viewed as a "soft" issue and takes a back seat to more pressing concerns such as security or is traded away for other concessions. As Berwari and others have pointed out however, there is nothing soft about a commitment to supporting stability, reconstruction and a peaceful political transition in Iraq.

Drafted by Anita Sharma, Director of The Conflict Prevention Project, 202/691-4083,

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