Iraqis wary but willing to accept security law
BAGHDAD, Iraq — On the day that Iraqi leaders signed a sweeping law that allows them to impose martial rule, Ghayeb Koubaisi got a taste of the stringent security as he made his way from the turbulent city of Ramadi to Baghdad.
Koubaisi had to wait for two hours under the punishing midday sun as Iraqi police questioned people at a checkpoint outside Baghdad. All those who were stopped, he said, were Sunni Muslims from Ramadi, Fallujah and other centers of the Iraqi insurgency.
“I am not fighting against anyone, but the police saw on my identity card that I was from Ramadi, so they pulled me aside,” said Koubaisi, 25, a poultry farmer who traveled to Baghdad to buy medicine for his animals. “If there is martial law, we’re going to have arbitrary searches and arrests all the time. They will use the excuses of fighting terrorism, or protecting national security.”
While most Iraqis favor a crackdown on militants, some reject the use of martial rule, viewing it as a reprise of the absolute power exercised by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The emergency law, which was adopted last week, grants Prime Minister Iyad Allawi broad authority to set curfews, cordon off entire cities, tap phones, close businesses and confiscate funds used by insurgents — and to assume direct command of Iraqi security forces in areas under martial rule.
The law has rekindled concerns about a lack of checks and balances on Allawi’s powers while he leads an interim government until elections are held in January. The interim administration is supposed to have a parliament with mostly advisory powers, but it has not been created yet. More broadly, the Iraqi law has raised fears about the use of emergency laws in the Middle East to stifle dissent and keep unrepresentative governments in power.
Some Iraqis worry that an executive government, without the oversight of a legislative body during the transitional period, will set a dangerous precedent for the permanent government. Given Iraq’s history of coups and its present chaotic state, they fear that the transitional administration might end up being the permanent government.
Before it was approved, the emergency law was amended to include safeguards that allow the Iraqi president and two vice presidents, as well as Iraq’s highest court, to review declarations of martial rule. The law also says a state of emergency cannot be used as a justification for delaying elections beyond Jan. 31.
In a television interview before he took office June 28, Allawi hinted that elections might have to be delayed because of the security situation. He quickly retracted that statement after an outcry from Iraqis, who noted the January deadline is enshrined in Iraq’s interim constitution and two U.N. resolutions.
Even though the security law by itself cannot be used to delay elections, specialists say any balloting held under emergency rule is problematic.
“To hold elections in such emergency conditions would have a serious effect on the ability of candidates and parties to campaign, and perhaps even disrupt balloting,” said Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington and an expert on Arab legal systems.
Many Iraqis agree, and some say they would be willing to accept a delay in elections if that would make the balloting safer.
“I would not mind if elections were delayed until security really improves and we can have a real vote,” said Abdel Wahed Nimat, 57, a guard at a private Baghdad company. “There’s no sense in having an election under the barrel of a gun. That’s what Saddam did.”
Like many Iraqis tired of widespread kidnappings, assassinations and robberies, Nimat supports the idea of martial law. “The only thing our people understand is force,” he said, lighting a cigarette as he shopped at an outdoor fruit market last week. “Democracy will not work in Iraq until a long period has passed.”
Allawi is hoping such sentiments will translate into broad public support when he decides to use his emergency powers, especially in the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The prime minister has vowed to be mindful of concerns about human rights.
Under the law, Allawi can declare martial rule in any part of Iraq with the approval of the president and two vice presidents. Initially, the state of emergency can be declared for 60 days, but that can be extended every 30 days “as needed.” Iraq’s highest judicial body, the Court of Cassation, has the power to review emergency declarations and revoke them.
Analysts say the law could run afoul of strong guarantees of civil and political freedoms outlined in the interim Iraqi constitution. That document, which was approved by Iraqi leaders and the U.S. occupation authority in March, will remain in force until a permanent constitution is drafted by the end of 2005.
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Some Iraqis worry that the law could open the way for perpetual martial rule, as in many Arab countries. Egypt, for example, has been under a nearly continuous state of emergency since 1939, which preceded its independence.
In Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, martial rule has often been used to suppress political dissent. “This Iraqi law might not only be used to deal with violence, but I expect that it will also be a way to pursue political opponents,” said Mohammed Habib, a leader of Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. “We have suffered terribly from this type of law, which has put our people under the ruler’s thumb.”
While the Iraqi emergency law is narrower in scope than the Egyptian law, they both concentrate power in the hands of the executive. Brown said it has been the pattern of emergency laws in Arab countries to give authority directly to political leaders, rather than going through the military.
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Using emergency rule in Iraq is especially risky right now. Allawi’s government is viewed as illegitimate by many Iraqis because it was largely selected by the U.S. occupation. And because the Iraqi National Council, a 100-member assembly with no lawmaking powers, has not convened, there is no body to act as a check on the executive branch.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service