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Sticking Points in Constitution May Come Back to Haunt Iraq

Compromises mean that more than 50 items, many of them the most contentious, have been left to next year's National Assembly.

August 31, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Political leaders warned Tuesday that dozens of thorny issues deferred in an effort to placate ethnic and religious groups during the debate leading to Iraq's draft constitution could come back to haunt lawmakers early next year.

Iraq's 39-page draft constitution, which was submitted to the transitional National Assembly on Sunday, skirted many of Iraq's most controversial issues, such as the balance of power between Baghdad and the outlying regions, the rights of women and the sharing of oil revenue.

The latest version of the text includes more than 50 items that were left to next year's National Assembly, which will be charged with filling in the blanks of the constitution with dozens of new laws.

"All these problems are still there," said Hassan Bazzaz, a University of Baghdad political science professor. "And as they say, the devil is in the details."

If Iraqi voters approve the current draft in an Oct. 15 referendum, political leaders and analysts say, the same debates that ended in deadlock during the drafting process will resume in as little as four months.

Negotiators acknowledged that the compromises would leave lawmakers with a lengthy to-do list, but said they had little choice but to set aside hot-button issues so they could reach agreement before the deadline.

"They're going to have to work day and night to write all these laws," said Ali Dabagh, a top Shiite negotiator.

Details of implementing federalism joined the list of unsettled issues in the final days of negotiations. Earlier language that spelled out the balance of powers between the federal and regional governments was stripped from the final version as a concession to Sunni Arabs, who oppose federalism because they fear it will lead to the breakup of Iraq.

As a result, details about the election and powers of local councils, courts and presidents, as well as the referendum process needed to form a semi-independent region, remain unresolved.

"There's going to be a lot of wrangling," said Saadoun Zubaidi, a Sunni Arab negotiator who opposes the draft charter. "A lot of the paragraphs in the constitution are vague and bland. There's still a lot to be said."

Kurds wanted the constitution to include a formula for dividing oil profits, but Shiites insisted that the matter be settled by the assembly.

Women's rights leaders sought protections against religious courts in matters such as divorce, child custody and inheritance, but the current version promises only that the issue -- like dozens of others -- will be "organized by law."

Other issues left unresolved include the powers and formation of a second legislative body, known as the Council of Union; the wartime powers of the prime minister; the powers of Iraq's intelligence agencies; the right to protest and peacefully assemble; and the definition of hate groups.

Disagreement over whether to divide court seats by ethnicity and allow clerics to serve as judges stymied agreement on the future Supreme Court, which is charged with interpreting the constitution. The issue "will be defined by a law that should be passed by two-thirds of the parliament members," the draft says. The prospect of settling such issues has left some assembly members overwhelmed.

"It's too much, really," said National Assembly member Baha Araji, a Shiite loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr. "At least we'll have four years to get it done." Araji predicted that the next assembly would need at least two years to draft laws for the more straight-forward issues, but said disputed matters, such as federalism, might take longer.

Divisions persisted Tuesday as Sunni leaders continued to call for further revisions.

Arab League diplomats urged Iraqi leaders to revise the text to declare Iraq part of the Arab world. The current language states that Iraq's "Arab people" are part of the Arab nation.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who continued to meet with Sunni leaders Tuesday to broker a deal, raised hopes that adjustments to the draft might still be possible.

"I believe that a final, final draft has not yet been ... presented, so that is something that Iraqis will have to talk to each other [about] and decide for themselves," he said during a Baghdad news conference with a top Sunni leader.

But an apparent effort to showcase efforts to bring consensus only served to demonstrate the level of discord when the Sunni leader used the joint news conference to rail against the draft, declaring the current government illegal and accusing the Shiite interior minister of allowing the slayings of dozens of Sunnis by Iraqi security forces.

"We reject the draft," said Adnan Dulaimi, former head of the Sunni Endowment, a government agency that looks after Sunni mosques.

Khalilzad laughed uncomfortably during Dulaimi's impassioned condemnation of the government, which was pulled from the airwaves by Iraq's state-owned, Shiite-dominated television station.

Shiite leaders said the outburst proved that the Sunnis would never be satisfied and that negotiations were futile. They said they would consider only minor alterations to the text.

"I won't say never, but it won't be easy," Dabagh said. "We don't want to open the door to endless changes."

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