The United States knows that the way to defeat the terrorists is for Iraq's new democratic government to gain political legitimacy and popularity by meeting all the deadlines it has set for itself - starting with completing the writing of a new constitution by Aug. 15 and, hopefully, its ratification by voters in October.
This is why the Bush administration is keeping the heat on leaders to resolve, within the next few days, the sensitive issues that still separate them - such as regional autonomy, control of oil reserves and, most important of all, the role of religion in the government.
The last is crucial because it affects women's rights. The country's majority Shiite Islamic parties are pushing hard to make religious law, or sharia, supreme over the civil law that currently governs such intimate activities as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
If sharia prevails, it would be akin to Iran's Islamic republic - a patriarchal society that makes women second-class citizens. In fact, women would have fewer rights than they did under Saddam Hussein, wherein they were at least theoretically equal.
What's especially distressing for Iraq's more liberated, Western-oriented women living in metropolitan and suburban areas is that there are millions of devout Shiite women, most living in the countryside, who embrace the notion of religious law over secular law.
Their experience with secular law under Saddam often was brutal, with random rapes and beatings. They see sharia not as oppressive, but as protective and comforting - as long as they are obedient to the strictures of Islam. That is fine for them if they want to live that way, but it is wrong for them to support a constitution that would force all women to live that way.
If sharia prevails in the new constitution, it will deal a serious blow to women's rights in Iraq, and in this country it will be correctly interpreted as a doctrine of misogyny that will make U.S. participation in the war more unpopular than ever.
More than 1,800 young Americans haven't given their lives to make Iraq safe to oppress women. Calmer heads must prevail in the constitution's final draft.
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