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More Sunnis to Join Constitution Panel

Factions disagree on the number, but the deal ends a deadlock delaying work on the document.

June 17, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi leaders reached a compromise agreement Thursday to include more Sunni Arabs on a committee drafting the country's new constitution, ending weeks of deadlock that had delayed work on a document due to be finished by mid-August.

But Sunni and Shiite participants in Thursday's negotiations emerged with different versions of what their accord entailed.

Shiite negotiators insisted that 13 Sunnis would join the two on the 55-member committee. Salih Mutlaq and Mohammed Dayini of the National Dialogue Council, a leading Sunni umbrella group that was involved in the talks, said 15 Sunnis would join the panel.

A Western diplomat monitoring the negotiations backed the Sunni view. But it was disputed by powerful Shiite officials involved in the talks. "We have asked [Sunnis] to nominate 13 names to be added," said Saad Jawad of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who is on the constitutional committee.

All sides agree that 10 additional Sunni representatives will serve as informal consultants to the committee.

The apparent disconnect underscores the wide gap between the negotiating parties that must be overcome before the drafting of the constitution begins in earnest.

Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20% of Iraq's population, had dominated the country's political life since the 1920s and were favored by Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni, at the expense of Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds.

Sunnis largely stayed away from January's parliamentary election, either in protest or for fear of retaliation by insurgents. The result was a provisional National Assembly dominated by Shiites and Kurds, from which the committee was drawn.

From the start, the effort to include the former ruling minority in the government has been fraught with distrust, dueling accusations and brinksmanship -- delaying the formation of an administration that is only meant to last until new elections can be held in December under a permanent constitution.

Despite the differing versions of Thursday's deal, it did bring significant concessions from both sides.

Sunni leaders have apparently dropped their original demand for 25 additional seats, settling for adding 10 "experts" who will serve on a consultative body that will include members of various sects and ethnicities.

Sunnis also had demanded that the additional panelists have full voting rights, a power the other committee members had earned in a flawed but largely fair election.

Negotiators avoided the thorny issue by eliminating the prospect of voting. "We agreed to work by consensus," said Jawad, whose party is a leading force in the government.

The groups are set to meet again over the weekend, when the Sunni factions involved are expected to present their list of candidates. But further gridlock seems likely because Shiite leaders intend to veto nominees judged to have been too close to Hussein's Baathist government.

"We agreed that whoever is nominated has to meet the standards of the National Assembly," said Jawad Maliki, a senior official with the Islamic Dawa Party, headed by new Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. "For example, they must be well-educated, not a Baathist or a Saddam loyalist, a believer in the political process and not a supporter of terrorism."

The drafters will have less than two months to craft a document that navigates a number of sensitive issues, including the relationship between religion and state, the prospect of a federal nation composed of semiautonomous regions and the question of how Iraq, with its proud and independent Kurdish population, fits into the larger Arab world.

The constitution must be ratified in a national referendum and will fail if rejected by two-thirds majorities in three provinces. That essentially gives each major group -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- veto power.

Once the committee's membership is settled, the drafters will have until Aug. 15 to present the final document. They have the option of requesting an additional six months, though U.S. officials are pushing hard to keep the process on schedule.

The tight timetable, the need for consensus and veto rule make it likely that some controversial questions about Iraq's future will be put off in the name of unity and expediency.

Organizers remain cautiously optimistic about their chances of meeting the deadline.

"In theory, yes, it can happen," Jawad said. "In practice, all I can say is 'Wait and see.' "

Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell, Zainab Hussein, Raheem Salman and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report.

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