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Sunnis split on constitution

THURSDAY, OCT. 13, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three days before a draft constitution goes to voters in a yes-or-no referendum, Iraqi leaders amended the charter Wednesday in an effort to draw the country’s Sunni Arab minority away from the violent insurgency and into politics. But many Sunnis rejected the compromise and insurgents struck again, killing at least 30 people in a bombing.

In an evening ceremony before a gathering of diplomats and politicians, Iraq’s Shiite Muslim, Kurdish and secular factional leaders formally proclaimed the changes without a vote by the 275-member elected National Assembly.

The amendments brokered by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad during a week of intense negotiations persuaded one prominent Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, to call for a “yes” vote in Saturday’s referendum. The multi-faction agreement, reached late Tuesday, split the diffuse leadership of the Sunnis, which had been campaigning almost universally against the proposed charter.

President Jalal Talabani and Iraqi leaders across the country’s ethnic and sectarian divides predicted Wednesday that the constitution will be approved. Sunnis make up about 20 percent of the population, dominant in three of the 18 provinces; rejection of the proposed charter by two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces would be enough to defeat it.

About 1 p.m., an hour before the accord was announced Wednesday, an insurgent detonated a belt packed with explosives in the midst of volunteers at a police recruiting center in Tal Afar. It was the second suicide bombing in as many days in the small, ethnically mixed town in northwestern Iraq. At least 60 died in the two attacks.

The most significant of the eight amendments Wednesday gives the new National Assembly that will be elected Dec. 15 a mandate to set up a committee that would have four months to recommend further changes in the constitution.

That opens a window of opportunity early next year for amendments that could be put before voters by a simple majority of the next assembly.

It also gives Sunni parties an incentive not only to participate in Saturday’s referendum but to organize and take part in the December election to bolster their numbers in the new legislature.

The accord does not directly address the Sunnis’ biggest objection to the draft constitution – the provision for remaking Iraq into a loose federation with a weak central government, a highly autonomous Kurdish north and possibly an oil-rich, Shiite ministate in the south. Most Sunnis live in the resource-poor center and west. But Sunni negotiators said they hope to make at least marginal changes to the federal system if they gain enough seats in the next assembly.


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