Sectarian Divide Widens on Iraq's Constitutional Panel

Aussain Ali, an Iraqi policeman who was wounded in clashes with gunmen in western Baghdad, receives some comfort and a kiss from a colleague.
Aussain Ali, an Iraqi policeman who was wounded in clashes with gunmen in western Baghdad, receives some comfort and a kiss from a colleague. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 9, 2005

BAGHDAD, June 8 -- Groups on both sides of Iraq's most contentious sectarian divide hardened their stances Wednesday, as Sunni Muslim politicians demanded 25 more seats on the committee that will write the country's permanent constitution, while Iraq's president and prime minister offered glowing praise for a controversial Shiite Muslim militia.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported that four of its soldiers had been killed in northern Iraq on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Members of the constitution committee have been struggling for weeks to reach agreement on incorporating more Sunni Arabs. Because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the country's legislative elections in January, they are underrepresented in parliament and have just two seats on the 55-member committee, which next meets on Thursday.

A group of prominent Sunni Arabs issued their demands for greater representation on the panel after meeting Wednesday afternoon. The alliance of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, led by Shiites, has 28 committee seats and Kurds have 15, with the remainder divided among other political groups or individuals.

"We have to get more than just Shiites on the committee," said Adnan Dulaimi, who heads the government department that oversees Sunni affairs. "We demand 25 seats in the committee so the number would be equal to what the Sunni Arabs represent in Iraq."

According to many estimates, Sunni Arabs represent 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population, but they often claim to make up a larger proportion. Iraq's majority Shiites control the transitional government.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have said that including more Sunnis in the political process could weaken support for the Sunni-dominated insurgency. But the Sunni request for 25 seats on an expanded constitutional committee -- nearly twice as many as Sunnis had previously been offered -- threatens to further delay efforts to finalize the panel, which is charged with completing a draft by Aug. 15.

If the panel completes its work on schedule, a national referendum on the constitution will be held Oct. 15. Members can request a six-month extension, a prospect that U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they hope to avoid. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, released a report Wednesday arguing that the committee should take the extension to ensure the quality of its product.

"The Kurds expressed their opinion. They would not accept the number of the Sunnis being more than theirs," said Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite member of the committee.

Dabbagh and other members said the final number of Sunnis added was not important because the panel was expected to vote to make all decisions by consensus.

But Dulaimi said the Sunnis' demand was firm. "If they don't agree at the end, we'll withdraw from the process of writing the constitution. We will never accept the 13 seats they want to give us," he said. "In the referendum, if they don't agree to our demands, we'll call on three provinces to reject the constitution."

However, Naseer Ani, a Sunni politician involved in negotiations, said there might be room for compromise. "We insist on the number, but it is politics -- everything is possible," he said.

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