Iraq's U.S. administrator suggested Monday he would block any move by Iraqi leaders to make Islamic law (search) the backbone of an interim constitution, which women's groups fear could threaten their rights.
During a visit to a women's center in Karbala, administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) said the current draft of the interim constitution, due to take effect at the end of this month, would make Islam the state religion and "a source of inspiration for the law" — but not the main source for that law.
However, Mohsen Abdel-Hamid (search), the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council and a Sunni Muslim hard-liner, has proposed making Islamic law the "principal basis" of legislation.
Iraqi women's groups fear that could cost them the rights they hold under Iraq's longtime secular system, especially in such areas as divorce, child support and inheritance.
Bremer was asked what would happen if Iraqi leaders wrote into the interim charter that Islamic sharia law is the principal basis of legislation. "Our position is clear," Bremer replied. "It can't be law until I sign it."
Bremer must sign all measures passed by the 25-member council before they can become law. Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy (search), however, wants the interim constitution to be approved by an elected legislature. Under U.S. plans, a permanent constitution would not be drawn up and voted on by the Iraqi people until 2005.
Under most interpretations of Islamic law, women's rights to seek divorce are strictly limited and they only receive half the inheritance of men. Islamic law also allows for polygamy and often permits marriage of girls at a younger age than does secular law.
Earlier this month, 45 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Bush urging him to preserve women's rights in Iraq.
U.S. leverage with the Iraqis will decline, however, after the U.S.-led coalition returns sovereignty to an Iraqi administration at the end of June.
The United States also hopes to hand over more responsibility for internal security to U.S.-trained Iraqi forces, which could reduce American casualties as the U.S. presidential election approaches.
Police, meanwhile, arrested five Iraqis suspected in the assassination of Aquila al-Hashimi, a member of the Governing Council who was gunned down Sept. 20 as she left her Baghdad home, the Interior Ministry said.
The men were arrested 10 days ago in the city of Amarah, 180 miles southeast of the capital, Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim told The Associated Press. They were arrested for using drugs but police uncovered "indications" they may have been involved in the al-Hashimi slaying, he said. Police were still investigating.
Al-Hashimi was the highest official in the post-Saddam Hussein administration to be killed in the persistent violence in Iraq since Saddam's fall.