Iraqi activist taken up by Bush recants her views

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The Independent Online

Back in February, with blue ink on her finger symbolising the recent Iraqi election in which she had just voted, Safia Taleb al-Souhail was invited to sit with the first lady, Laura Bush, and listen to the President claim in his state of the union address that success was being achieved in Iraq. Her picture went round the world after she turned to hug Janet Norwood, a Texas woman whose son had been killed in Iraq.

But now it appears Ms Souhail, an anti-Saddam activist who became Iraq's ambassador to Egypt, may be having second thoughts about the "success" she celebrated with a two-fingered victory sign.

Having seen the negotiations for the country's constitution fall into disarray and the prospect of a secular constitution severely undermined, she expressed her concerns last week.

"When we came back from exile, we thought we were going to improve rights and the position of women. But look what has happened: we have lost all the gains we made over the past 30 years. It's a big disappointment. Human rights should not be linked to Islamic sharia law at all. They should be listed separately in the constitution."

Although, in practice, many Iraqis end up having recourse to religious authorities or informal tribal law, the idea of a united civil code is central to the modern state, she said.

Ms Souhail, whose actions during Mr Bush's February address were noted by Billmon.Org, a political website, added: "This will lead to creating religious courts. But we should be giving priority to the law."

Mr Bush claimed last week that women's rights were not being threatened by the negotiations in Baghdad.

"There is not, as I understand it, the way the constitution is written, is that women have got rights, inherent rights recognised in the constitution, and that the constitution talks about, you know, not 'the religion' but 'a religion'," he said.

"Twenty-five per cent of the assembly is going to be women, which is embedded in the constitution."

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