Bush Calls Iraqi Shiite Leaders to Discuss Constitution

By Mike Allen and Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 26, 2005; 12:51 PM

President Bush took a break during his trip to Nampa, Idaho, this week, and made an unusual call to a key Shiite leader in Iraq about the talks underway in Baghdad on a new constitution.

The call to Abdul-Aziz Hakim, first reported by the New York Times, urged him to continue including Sunni leaders in the final discussions about the constitution being drafted by an elected assembly.

The call came Wednesday afternoon after some Shiite leaders advocated bypassing Sunnis, who are seeking changes in the draft, and sending the document directly to voters for ratification.

"This is an Iraqi process, but the United States is doing everything it can to assist them in meeting their own obligations and deadlines," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Friday. He said the call was brief and did not elaborate on it.

Iraq's interim constitution requires a nationwide vote on the draft by Oct. 15. The National Assembly was obligated to finish it by Aug. 15, but negotiators instead engineered a one-week extension. When that deadline passed Monday, faction leaders submitted an incomplete document to the assembly and gave themselves until Thursday to produce a complete version.

The deadline passed inconclusively amid increasingly lethal confrontations between rival Shiite militias, who are fighting their own battles for political supremacy.

The most hotly disputed aspect of the constitutional talks has been federalism. While all sides agree to recognize the Kurds' existing self-rule in the north, most Sunnis hotly reject creation of a separate, largely Shiite state in the south bordering Iran, a Shiite theocracy.

But the Sunnis, who comprise about 20 percent of Iraq's population, largely boycotted the January elections that chose delegates to the assembly and now find their influence waning.

Apparently in response to Bush's call, Shiite negotiators Friday offered what they called their final compromise proposal to Sunnis to try to break the impasse, the Associated Press reported, quoting Abbas Bayati, a Shiite official.

He said the concessions were on the pivotal issues of federalism and efforts to remove former members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party from public life, adding: "We cannot offer more than that."

There was no comment from Sunni negotiators. But in a sign of public opinion within the Sunni community, the country's Sunni vice president said the current draft was written only by Shiites and Kurds and is "far from the aspirations of all Iraqi people."

"We are trying to put forward the views of others," Vice President Ghazi Yawar told al-Jazeera television Friday. "We want this constitution to maintain the unity of Iraqi soil and give rights to all Iraqis."

Meanwhile, the Reuters news service reported that thousands marched in praise of Iraq's deposed leader Saddam Hussein on Friday in the city of Baqubah, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad.

They reportedly danced and chanted his name and condemned plans by the Shiite and Kurdish-led assembly to push through a draft constitution.

They accused the Shiites of kowtowing to Shiite Iran and to the United States.

"Bush, Bush, listen well; We all love Saddam Hussein!" crowds chanted. "We reject the American and Iranian constitution" and "No to a constitution that breaks up Iraq," their placards read.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company