By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
BAGHDAD, Aug. 22 -- Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and its Kurdish allies moved Monday toward fundamentally reshaping their nation, submitting a proposed constitution that would create a loose federation with strongly Islamic national laws.
The draft constitution, sent to parliament just five minutes before a midnight deadline, outraged negotiators for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, and Sunni constitutional delegates warned that civil unrest could erupt if the charter becomes law over their objections.
"The streets will rise up," predicted Salih Mutlak, a Sunni delegate.
But the coalition of Shiites and Kurds, which holds a heavy majority in parliament and could easily approve the constitution on its own, agreed late Monday to postpone a vote for three days in hopes of appeasing Sunni negotiators.
Sunni support for the constitution is seen as crucial to ending the insurgency that continues to stage deadly attacks across the country. Sunnis fear the proposed federal system would cause the breakup of Iraq, but Shiite and Kurdish leaders said they intended to yield little ground in their right to form separate federal states.
"There will be no central government like before," said Humam Hamoudi, the constitutional committee chairman and a member of the Shiite sect that was subjected to decades of repression under Saddam Hussein's centrally controlled rule. "There will be decentralized government."
Hamoudi said the coming days would bring dialogue, but he added, "there will be no changes in the articles or the details of the constitution."
In Washington, the White House lauded the Iraqi government for submitting a constitution and meeting the deadline requirement of a U.S.-crafted interim law.
"We welcome today's development as another step forward in Iraq's constitutional process," said a White House statement. "The progress made over the past week has been impressive."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also praised the Iraqis in a statement for their "statesmanlike decision" to use three more days to build a national consensus.
Negotiators here described American officials as playing a major role in the draft. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad shuttled among Iraqi leaders, pushing late Monday for the inclusion of Sunnis in talks, negotiators said. U.S. Embassy staff members worked from a Kurdish party headquarters to help type up the draft and translate changes from English to Arabic for Iraqi lawmakers, negotiators said.
The last night of talks took place on a day of power outages, blamed on insurgent attacks, that also knocked out water service to Iraq's capital. Meanwhile, roadside bombings on Monday killed two U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and an Iraqi couple near the northern city of Kirkuk. The mainstream Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party also reported the killing of one of its leaders, Amer Abdul Jabar Ziayan, north of Baghdad.
In Pakistan, officials reported that 11 Pakistani workers had been freed nine days after they were kidnapped in Iraq while traveling by bus to Baghdad from Kuwait.
If no major changes are made, the draft constitution would officially enshrine a sweeping transformation of Iraq that began 2 1/2 years ago with the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of Hussein. The changes would have enormous ramifications for Iraq's 26 million people, its resources and relations with its neighbors, such as Turkey, who fear the Kurdish north's move toward near-independence will heighten revolts among their own Kurdish minorities.
The constitution as written would formalize and broaden the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish north since creation of a U.S.-protected "no-fly" zone following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The charter's definition of Iraq as a federal union also would clear the way for a southern Shiite state made up of as many as half of Iraq's 18 provinces, negotiators said. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite religious party that is the country's strongest political bloc and that has strong ties to neighboring Iran, called for such a sub-state this month.
Sunnis fear they would be left with an impoverished, weakened state in the west and center.
Negotiators said Monday that the draft would put Iraq's existing oil production under control of the central government. But control of new oil production would go to the south and north, where the oil is produced, meaning revenue for the central government, and Sunnis, would likely ebb within a few years.
"We gave a choice -- whoever doesn't want federalism can opt not to practice it," said Ali Debagh, a Shiite constitutional committee member. He acknowledged that the Sunnis would be unlikely to accept such a draft in a national referendum scheduled for October.
The draft constitution submitted Monday stipulates that Iraq is an Islamic state and that no law can contradict the principles of Islam, negotiators confirmed.
Opponents have charged that the latter provision would subject Iraqis to rule by religious edicts of individual clerics or sects.
The opponents also said women would lose gains they made during Hussein's rule, when they were guaranteed equal rights under civil law in matters including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The draft constitution says individuals can choose to have family matters decided by either religious or civil law.
Supporters say a separate bill of rights would protect women, and provisions of the constitution say no law can contradict democracy or that bill of rights.
Khalilzad, speaking to CNN early Tuesday, called the proposed constitution a "very good" draft that guarantees equal rights for all. An American serving as adviser to the Kurds, Peter Galbraith, disagreed that the charter protected women's rights and condemned what he called the Bush administration's "hypocrisy" on that issue in the constitution.
The Islamic law provisions would not apply in the Kurdish north, negotiators said.
Kurdish negotiators this week criticized Khalilzad, a Muslim who helped draft a constitution last year as U.S. envoy to his native Afghanistan, for allegedly supporting the Shiite push for a heavy emphasis on religion in Iraq's new charter.
Both Sunnis and Kurds accused Khalilzad of pushing negotiators too hard to make Monday's deadline, already extended once, and keep the country on a strict timeline that calls for the October constitution referendum and new national elections in December. The United States has viewed the timeline as critical to its hopes of scaling back its 138,000 troops here by spring.
But negotiators credited Khalilzad on Monday with persuading Shiites and Kurds to take more time to try to bring Sunnis into support of the draft.
Mutlak expressed shock at how close other negotiators seemed to have come Monday at passing the draft without further consulting Sunnis. ""Frankly, I don't trust them anymore," he said afterward.
"Congratulations on your constitution," Mutlak told Hamoudi, the Shiite committee chairman, early Tuesday after the session. "Yours," Hamoudi said. Mutlak disagreed, grimly: "Yours."
Defeating the constitution in an Oct. 15 referendum would require two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's provinces to reject it. Sunnis are thought capable of securing such a vote in at least two provinces in a fair election. If the parliament had failed to submit a draft Monday, it would have dissolved and elections would have been held for a new assembly to try to devise a new draft. If the referendum fails Oct. 15, it will trigger the same series of events.
Because of insurgent threats and boycott demands from their leaders, the majority of Iraq's Sunnis stayed out of January national elections that seated the current parliament and government. The move greatly diminished their clout in the government and in the constitutional talks. Many Sunni leaders said they recognize that was a mistake, and have been mobilizing followers to vote "no" in the constitutional referendum.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.