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Protests Mount Against Interim Law

Students heed the calls of Shia leaders and abandon their classrooms for public protests against the constitution
By Aqil Jabbar

Thousands of Iraqis in Baghdad have held massive demonstrations to protest the adoption of a new interim constitution which many say fails to uphold Islamic rule and the rights of the Shia majority.


Demonstrators filled downtown Baghdad's al-Firdous square on March 12, responding to the call of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaqoubi, said to command a strong following among educated Shia youth.


In Firdous square, Yaqoubi's Baghdad deputy Ali al-Ibrahimi led prayers and addressed a crowd waving banners reading "We need our Islamic constitution, we need one united Iraq".


The sheikh called for an amendment to the constitution rejecting federalism and the idea of the "minority ruling the majority", which he said might lead to secession.


"It is clear that the Kurds want ethnically-based federalism, which confirms their desire to secede," Ibrahimi said.


Many Shia leaders have criticised the provisions of the constitution that allow limited sovereignty to the Kurdish self-rule areas of northern Iraq, as well as a clause permitting regional blocs such as the Kurds to veto the adoption of a permanent constitution.


Ibrahimi also said the law did not give sufficient recognition of Islam.


While the constitution forbids any legislation that contradicts "the universally agreed tenets of Islam", it falls short of designating Islam as the main source of legislation.


Ibrahimi also said the constitution did not give full equality to women, saying that a clause calling for an interim parliament to have at least 25 per cent of its seats filled by women was insufficient.


Members of the crowd of demonstrators - many of them students from outside Baghdad - said they would heed a call by Yaqoubi to boycott their classes the following day.


"We came to show obedience to our marjaiya [Shia religious leadership] after the call of Sheikh al-Yaqoubi. We reject the law because it contradicts with Islam, our constitution in life," said Hamad Jamil, an engineering student who travelled to Baghdad from the Shia holy city of Karbala.


"Is this the type of democracy that the occupation came here to bring us?" asked Zakariya Yehya, an engineering student at Baghdad University. "They did not consult the people on the law that might decide their future and destiny. It is incredible."


Ibrahimi told protesters that Yaqoubi was calling on university students to boycott classes and to be prepared to demonstrate again if his demands were not met.


Classrooms at Baghdad University emptied the next day as students dutifully flocked to the central plaza to join a sit-in.


Activists from Shia religious parties, some wearing black mourning clothes to protest the law, went round classrooms announcing the boycott.


Some professors told their students that lessons had been cancelled, while others tried fruitlessly to prevent the exodus.


"I will expel from the college any student who doesn’t attend the lecture," shouted Mounir Hamid al-Saadi, dean of the technical faculty at Baghdad University, as students streamed past him on their way outside.


But Hilal Majid, dean of the faculty of administrative technology, said professors supported the students "because we reject the constitution too".


In the university's square, student leader Mohammed Rahim climbed on top of a plinth that once supported a statue of Saddam Hussein. "This place was once a symbol of dictatorship, but now it is a symbol of freedom and democracy," he shouted.


"If they do not respond to our demands to amend the law, we will hold a continuous sit-in here."


"We gathered to announce that we reject and condemn a law which enables the minority to use the veto against majority," said engineering student Hassan Sharshoob. "It is a kind of minority dictatorship. Our belief in democracy made us lead this sit-in."


"This law is written by foreigners. It gives special rights to a minority in a move to divide Iraq," said another engineering student, Tuka Raad. She then burst into tears, kissing an Iraqi flag, which she clutched in her hand. "Long live free united Iraq," she cried.


Some of their classmates, however, opposed the protests.


"There is no need for these demonstrations. The constitution was written by Iraqis and is in their interests," said Ahmed Abd al-Jaleel, head of the Kurdistan Student Union.


Jaleel claimed that the protests had been called by politicised student unions that did not represent the full student body. "We, the Iraqis, are happy with the constitution and have nothing against it," he said.


"These students are killing democracy," said Salaam Mahdy, a student from the faculty of science, as he watched the demo from the sidelines.


"The constitution is to protect all Iraqis. The rule of an ethnic or religious majority is not a democracy, it is a kind of dictatorship."


Others, however, welcomed a scene that would have been unthinkable under the old regime.


"It doesn't matter why they're demonstrating. What's important is the democratic atmosphere," said Radhi Hashim, a policeman standing guard at the protests.


"I used to see these scenes of democracy only on TV, but now I see them in Iraq. It is like a dream to me."


Wisam al-Jaf, Ali Naji, Aqil Jabbar and Muhammad Fawzi are IWPR trainees.