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Baghdadis' Priorities for a New Constitution: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and Assembly

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

While little progress has been made on the drafting of Iraq's next constitution, it is clear that Iraqis desire a form of government that is accountable to popular will. As reported earlier (see "What Form of Government for Iraq?" in Related Items), a multiparty parliamentary democracy is the most popular form of government among residents of Baghdad, and relatively few want to see the country governed along theocratic lines.

But beyond this, what specific, guaranteed freedoms do citizens want to see in the country's next constitution?

Gallup's Poll of Baghdad asked a statistically representative sampling of the city's 6.4 million adults whether they favor or oppose constitutional provisions that would guarantee freedom of speech, religious exercise, and assembly. None of these freedoms existed to any substantive degree under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein; any exercise of them that was viewed as potentially disloyal or seditious was likely to be met with imprisonment, torture, or even execution.

Freedom of Speech

Virtually without exception (98% "agree," 1% "disagree"), Baghdadis agree that the new constitution should guarantee all Iraqis the right "to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day." No demographic group appears to view freedom of speech as anything other than the most basic of civil rights.

To a large extent this freedom is already realized, even in the absence of a formal constitutional guarantee. Seventy-five percent of Baghdad's residents told Gallup they now feel freer to express their political views in public than they did before the invasion that ousted Hussein's regime.

Freedom to Exercise Religion

Similarly, the vast majority of Baghdad's residents -- nearly 9 in 10 (86%) -- agree that the country's next constitution should include a provision "allowing all Iraqi citizens to observe any religion of their choice and to practice its teachings and beliefs."

While different faiths and sects have long coexisted in the city, Iraq's Shiite community was seen as a source of opposition by the secular, but Sunni-dominated, Baathist regime. Shiites suffered severe repression, the execution of leading clerics, and an outright prohibition on many of the sect's forms of public religious observance.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Baghdad district expressing the strongest support for the free exercise of religion is the overwhelmingly Shiite Sadr City (formerly known as "Saddam City"). Ninety-four percent of those in Sadr City support a constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of religious practice and observance. In a Sunni-dominated district such as Al Karkh, support for such a guarantee -- though still strong -- is somewhat lower (79%).

Freedom of Assembly

The proposed constitutional provision receiving the least popular approval is freedom of assembly -- a guarantee "allowing all Iraqi citizens to assemble or congregate for any reason or in support of any cause." Approximately two-thirds (68%) of those interviewed support such a guarantee, while 25% do not.

A desire to maintain civil order and security may motivate the minority who oppose a guarantee of freedom of assembly -- but concern among some Sunnis over recent demonstrations in the city by followers of a dissident Shiite cleric may also be a factor.

Separation of Religion and State

Gallup also asked respondents for their views on the idea of keeping Iraq's governmental sphere separate from any specific religious sanction -- in other words, the separation of mosque and state. Two in five Baghdad residents (40%) said they support the notion of keeping the state separate from religion, but a majority -- 52% -- said they personally oppose this principle.

Baghdadis' support for the separation of religion and state is to some degree conditioned by their level of education. Support is nearly evenly split among those with a secondary school level of education or higher (47% support, 48% oppose), but significantly lower among those with no more than an elementary-level education (28% support, 56% oppose).

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