By Ellen Knickmeyer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
BAGHDAD, Aug. 23 -- A new draft constitution that would transform Iraq into a loose federal union sparked celebrations Tuesday in the streets of the Shiite south and an angry rally in the Sunni Arab heartland, where some chanted for the return of Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, called instrumental by all sides in prodding the constitution toward completion, defended it against complaints that it gave Islamic law too much power, particularly over women. Khalilzad said the draft was "right for Iraq at the present time."
Shiite leaders submitted the draft to the National Assembly before a midnight Monday deadline but agreed to put off an assembly vote until Thursday. Many Sunni Arabs expressed outrage that the deal reached by the Shiites and their Kurdish allies overrode Sunni Arab objections to a federal system that Sunnis say would divide Iraq. But the Shiites made clear Tuesday that they intended to make no major concessions to the Sunnis.
"The draft that was submitted is approximately the draft that will be implemented," said Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, whose Shiite coalition holds a majority of seats in the assembly.
"The idea is to try to sell this draft to the Sunnis," Kubba said of the three-day delay on the vote. "That's what this is all about."
"During coming days, we will have a dialogue to convince them, in fact, that federalism is not to divide Iraq," said Humam Hamoudi, the Shiite chairman of the constitutional committee.
Many Sunni Arabs want Iraq to remain under a strong central government. Sunnis dominated the country until the overthrow of Hussein by U.S.-led forces in 2003, and extremists among them are the mainstays of Iraq's two-year-old insurgency. Sunnis overwhelmingly boycotted national elections in January, leaving them with little political clout as Iraq wrote its new constitution. Many fear federalism will complete their marginalization, stranding them in a weak, resource-poor region between the Kurdish north and Shiite southwest.
In the latest political violence, a suicide bomber in the central city of Baqubah killed four Iraqi government employees, an Iraqi police officer, a U.S. soldier and an American contractor. A military statement said the bomber blew himself up in an Iraqi-U.S. coordination office.
Meanwhile, the military said, two Marines were killed in roadside bombings: one Sunday near Karmah, about 50 miles west of Baghdad, and one Monday near Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Though the draft constitution has yet to be approved, its presentation on Monday -- scrawled with handwritten amendments in the hours before the midnight deadline -- kept Iraq roughly on a U.S.-backed timeline that requires that the document be put to a popular vote by Oct. 15.
Voter approval of the constitution would mean elections for a new, full-term assembly in December. Rejection would mean dissolving the current transitional government and parliament and electing new transitional bodies that would make another try at a constitution.
President Bush and U.S. military leaders have pushed Iraq to stay on schedule to make possible substantial withdrawals of the 138,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. In Idaho, Bush praised Iraqi negotiators despite the second delay of the assembly vote. "The fact that they're even writing a constitution is vastly different from living under the iron hand of a dictator," he said.
The draft defines Iraq as a federal union, affirming the Kurds' self-rule in the north and opening the way for creation of more federal regions elsewhere. Abdul Aziz Hakim, who leads one of the two Shiite religious parties spearheading the government, has called for creation of a sub-state in the oil-rich south, where Shiites dominate.
Hamoudi, the committee chairman, called federalism the only way to avoid the dictatorship he said would inevitably arise out of an oil-rich central government.
And in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, traditional wedding parties turned into street celebrations, with revelers waving posters for the new constitution.
Sunni negotiators and ordinary Sunnis, meanwhile, complained bitterly that the draft had been presented to parliament.
"I can say that Iraqis should have recited the prayer for the dead over the united Iraq this morning, after slaughtering it with this constitution," said Jassem Sarhan, a player on the Iraqi army's soccer team and a resident of Ramadi, in the area known as the Sunni Triangle.
North of the capital, in the heavily Sunni town of Dawr, roughly 1,000 demonstrators chanted for Hussein. "We refuse the term 'federalism,' " tribal leader Khairallah Khalaf Muhammed said. "We will fight federalism and whoever tries to force it."
Drafts of the constitution circulating after the midnight deadline indicated a deal had been reached over the northern city of Kirkuk. The drafts set a December 2007 deadline for removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs who were relocated to the oil-rich city during Hussein's rule and then holding a municipal election on whether the city should join the Kurdish region.
The constitution's treatment of Islamic law and of women also drew objections and a defense.
The draft says no law can contradict the principles of Islam and leaves it open for individuals to decide whether inheritance, divorce and marriage would be governed by religious or civil law. Opponents say those provisions threaten women's rights, potentially leaving them subject to the edicts of extremist clerics.
"Women, they lost hugely in this constitution," said National Assembly Chairman Hachim Hasani, a Sunni who represented the demands of women's groups during the constitutional debates.
"Women had more rights in the past regime than they had now," Hasani said.
Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, called the constitution a balance between competing demands for wholly secular or wholly Islamic laws.
"Given the realities, I think where they have come out is right for Iraq at the present time," he said. Khalilzad, a Muslim born in Afghanistan, cited similarities with the constitution he helped draft for his native country, including a 25 percent quota for parliamentary seats for women.
"These are decisions Iraqis have made for themselves," he said. "We don't want to impose cookie-cutter approaches."
In Baghdad, some Iraqis took hope from even the limited consensus achieved.
"I don't think that things will get worse now, because the politicians are sitting together now," said Abdul Kareem Dhahi, 65, a mobile-phone shop owner. "So this is the new war, in politics. They will learn the game."
Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.