October 12, 2005 in Nation/World

Iraqis strike charter deal

Lee Keath Associated Press
Agence France Presse photo

An Iraqi food distributor carries copies of the draft constitution Tuesday before distributing them in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. The stakes for the United States are high in Saturday’s constitutional referendum in Iraq.
(Full-size photo)

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi negotiators reached a breakthrough deal on the constitution Tuesday, and at least one Sunni Arab party said it would now urge its followers to approve the charter in this weekend’s referendum. Suicide bombings and other attacks killed more than 50 people in the insurgent campaign aimed at intimidating voters.

Under the deal, the two sides agreed on a mechanism to consider amending the constitution after it is approved in Saturday’s referendum. The next parliament, to be formed in December, will set up a commission to consider amendments, which would later have to be approved by parliament and submitted to another referendum.

The agreement boosts the chances that the draft constitution will be passed Saturday. Shiite and Kurdish leaders support the draft and the United States has been eager to see it approved to avert months more of political turmoil, delaying plans to start a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In return, the agreement guarantees Sunni Arabs the ability to try later to introduce major changes they want, aimed at reducing the autonomous powers that Shiites and Kurds would have under the federal system created by the charter, negotiators said.

“The important principle here is that this provides an assurance (to Sunnis) that this constitution is not the end of history but is subject to amendment,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shiite party in the government.

U.S. officials have pushed the three days of negotiations between Shiite and Kurdish leaders in the government and Sunni Arab officials that concluded with marathon talks at the house of President Jalal Talabani late Tuesday.

A top Sunni negotiator, Ayad al-Samarraie of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the measure would allow it to “stop the campaign rejecting the constitution, and we will call on Sunni Arabs to vote yes.” It was unclear if parliament would formally vote on the new deal with some lawmakers saying that measure may be read to the National Assembly today.

But other major Sunni parties were not present at the negotiations, and at least one senior Sunni leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, said he was not yet convinced by the measure.

“The Islamic party was participating alone in these negotiations and making its own decisions,” al-Mutlaq said. “This is strange because the Iraqi Islamic party does not represent all the Sunni Arabs but only a small percentage of them.”

But the announcement was the first break in the ranks of Sunni Arab leaders and will likely deeply undermine the campaign to defeat the constitution at the polls. Sunni-led insurgents have demanded a boycott of the election and threatened those who would vote.

The agreement outlines four additions to the document considered Saturday that outline how future amendments will be made.

The draft constitution has already been printed by the United Nations and millions of copies are being distributed to the public for Saturday’s vote, so the new additions cannot be included.

Instead they will be announced in the media, particularly on television, since many Iraqis watch popular holiday programming during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan, said Ali al-Dabagh, a Shiite negotiator.

The central addition allows the next parliament, which will be formed in Dec. 15 elections, to form the commission, which will have four months to consider changes to the constitution. The changes would be approved by the entire parliament, then a referendum would be held two months later.

That is no guarantee that Sunnis will be able to make the changes they seek. They are likely to have a stronger representation in the next parliament, but would still face a strong Shiite and Kurdish majority that would likely oppose major changes.

And the deal does not necessarily make it any easier for Sunnis to push through amendments, only guarantees them the opportunity to try.

Al-Dabagh said any changes would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the parliament – just as is outlined in the constitution – before they can go to a referendum. Other negotiators, however, said the required proportion was not decided.

Sunnis fear that the draft constitution as it stands will fragment Iraq, because it allows Shiites and Kurds to create mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, leaving Sunnis in a poor central zone.

The other additions agreed on Tuesday include a statement stressing Iraqi unity, and another states that the Arabic language should be used in the Kurdistan region, along with Kurdish – issues important to the Sunni Arabs. The fourth underlines that former members of Saddam Hussein’s ousted, Sunni-led Baath Party will only be prosecuted if they committed crimes.

Some moderate Sunni leaders once had positions in the Baath Party and fear being barred from politics by the De-Baathification process outlined in the constitution.

“The leaders of the political blocs have approved these additions and amendments, and tomorrow they will be announced (read) to the national assembly,” al-Dabagh said.

Insurgent attacks Tuesday killed at least 54 people, the highest death toll since Sept. 29, when three car bombs exploded simultaneously in the mainly Shiite town of Balad, north of Baghdad, killing at least 102 people.

President Bush said more attacks would likely follow in the three days remaining before the balloting.

“I expect violence because there’s a group of terrorists and killers who want to stop the advance of democracy in Iraq,” Bush said in an interview with NBC-TV’s “Today” show. “I also expect people to vote, which is a remarkable achievement.”

Tuesday’s deadliest attack came when a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a crowded outdoor market in the northwestern town of Tal Afar, killing 30 Iraqi civilians and wounding 45, said Brig. Najim Abdullah, Tal Afar’s police chief.

It was the second suicide bombing in the town, about 90 miles east of the Syrian border, since U.S. and Iraqi forces waged a major offensive there in August, claiming to have killed some 200 insurgents and driving many others out.

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber hit an Iraqi army checkpoint in a western district, killing eight soldiers and a civilian, police said.

A woman exploded a car bomb near a U.S. military patrol in the northern city of Mosul, police and hospital officials said. U.S. troops immediately closed off the scene, so it was not known if there were any casualties. The U.S military in Baghdad had no information on the attack.

It was the first known instance of a female suicide car bomber, though a woman carried out a suicide attack on foot in Tal Afar in September.

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