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Key Panel in Iraq Considers Expanding
For Sunnis, a Bigger Say on Constitution

By Jonathan Finer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 28, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 27 -- The committee responsible for writing Iraq's permanent constitution is weighing a proposal that would permit political parties, tribes and other organizations in Sunni Muslim strongholds throughout the country to select additional committee members.

The move would strengthen the Sunni minority's role in drafting the document that will serve as the foundation of the new Iraqi state and help bring Sunni Arabs, who ruled the country under former president Saddam Hussein but largely boycotted Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, back into the political process.

Iraq's Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds -- who are overwhelmingly Sunni but historically at odds with Sunni Arabs -- currently dominate the 55-member committee, which next meets on Saturday. Sunni Arabs, who make up as much as 20 percent of the population, hold just two seats. One proposal under consideration calls for 46 new members to be added, of whom 15 to 20 would be Sunnis.

The Iraqi government has pledged to include more Sunnis in the political process, a step urged by U.S. officials here and in Washington, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Last weekend, some Sunni religious and political leaders formed a new political bloc and signaled their desire to participate in drafting the constitution.

"Our Sunni brothers have the right to take part in this process," Safaddin Safi, a Shiite who is minister for National Assembly affairs, said at a news conference this week. "It is the demand of all Iraqis that this is an inclusive process."

Across Iraq on Friday:

The U.S. military announced that a Marine had been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade during a joint U.S.-Iraqi sweep through the western city of Haditha.

A suicide car bomb targeting an Iraqi rapid-response force killed two civilians in the central city of Tikrit, Iraqi Capt. Saad Ramadan said. Eighteen people were wounded. Police Lt. Yassir Ibrahim said U.S. forces fatally shot an ambulance driver and wounded a policeman responding to the scene. There was no confirmation from the U.S. military.

A military statement said a detainee at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison died of gunshot wounds Friday. The detainee had been wounded during the Marine and Iraqi forces sweep at Haditha, Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a military spokesman, said by e-mail.

Less than three months remain before an Aug. 15 deadline to complete a draft constitution, under the terms of the temporary constitution, known as the Transitional Administrative Law. The draft must then win approval from the National Assembly and in a national referendum.

In a political evolution that began with a handover of political power by the United States last June and moved forward with the January elections, composing and ratifying a constitution stands as Iraq's next major step. Both previous hurdles were cleared on schedule, but momentum has waned in recent months as the Shiite-Kurdish coalition has struggled to form a government, finally announcing its cabinet at the end of April.

Various options remain on the table for how to modify the constitutional committee's membership to give Sunnis a greater voice. Several members said a leading proposal calls for formal nominating caucuses run by Sunni organizations, in provinces with large numbers of Sunnis, such as Salahuddin and Anbar.

"The more-accepted idea is to have limited local caucuses," said Humam Hamoudi, a Shiite cleric from the ruling coalition who was chosen this week to lead the committee. "Practically speaking, it is the beginning of the political process for Sunnis."

Hamoudi also said a seven-member subcommittee had been formed to consult with leading Sunni organizations about how to incorporate Sunnis. Its recommendations, he said, would be presented at the committee meeting Saturday.

At least one committee member said he believed caucuses would pose logistical problems and security risks, because many areas in which Sunnis are concentrated are also hotbeds of the insurgency. Other options include creating a more centralized process for adding Sunnis to the committee, perhaps by simply adding a group of Sunni scholars.

"The situation in Ramadi is still bad, and it is the same for Mosul and other Sunni cities," said commission member Ali Adib, a Shiite. "Moreover, we don't have enough time to do the caucuses. The caucus option is not a solution."

The committee began drafting the constitution this week, after choosing a leadership team with representatives of the country's three main factions. Fouad Masoum, a Kurd, and Adnan Janabi, a Sunni Arab, were named Hamoudi's deputies.

Among the most contentious matters for debate, several members said, would be the size, boundaries and level of autonomy of Iraq's regional subdivisions, such as the Kurdish-dominated north.

Kurds have largely governed themselves since 1991, when the United States and Britain began enforcing a no-fly zone over their territory after the Persian Gulf War. Particularly at issue will be governance of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which falls outside the present boundaries of the Kurdish region. Under Hussein, the government forcibly evicted Kurds from the city to make way for Sunni Arabs.

Officials in the southern city of Basra are looking to form a second regional area, with a third possibly coming from central Iraq, according to a Western official in Baghdad who spoke on condition he not be identified.

Hamoudi said he also expected some debate over the role of Islam -- and specifically of sharia , or Islamic law -- in determining Iraq's legal code. Framers of the temporary constitution took a path considered a compromise between Iraq's secular tradition and the religious fervor of some of its new leaders, declaring Islam to be a source for the document, rather than the source.

Hamoudi said that despite reports to the contrary this week, he favors including such a compromise in the permanent constitution. Islamic law "will be a primary source" for the constitution, but "it is not to be the only source," he said. "That is not just me who says that. It's Sistani," he added, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq.

Sunni political leaders are said to favor a clause stating that Iraq's national language is Arabic and that the country is part of the larger Arab world, provisions some Kurds find objectionable.

Some Sunnis would also like the constitution to state that all Iraqis, regardless of their background, can participate in future governments. They oppose the process known as de-Baathification, authorized under the temporary constitution, which calls for the expulsion of former members of Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party.

Several committee members said they were skeptical that the committee would complete its work on time. By law, members are permitted to request a six-month extension, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they hope to avoid.

The Western official in Baghdad said the United Nations would provide technical assistance in drafting the document, which could expedite the process. He called meeting the Aug. 15 deadline "doable, not easy."

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad and special correspondent Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company