Shiites Cut Off Talks on Charter

Anti-constitution protesters in Baqubah wave Iraqi flags and carry a poster of Saddam Hussein.
Anti-constitution protesters in Baqubah wave Iraqi flags and carry a poster of Saddam Hussein. (By Mohammed Adnan -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 28, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 -- Iraqi Shiite Muslim leaders said early Sunday that they were ending negotiations on the country's constitution after months of increasingly divisive talks and planned to put the draft before the National Assembly later in the day, senior officials involved in the talks said.

Despite some compromises made by Shiites at the urging of the Bush administration, the draft appears not to have won the support of at least some of the negotiators representing Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

"The chances of bringing Sunni Arabs to the political process are almost lost," said Salih Mutlak, the most vocal and most publicly unyielding of the Sunnis involved in talks on the constitution. "The Sunni Arabs will suffer a lot, unfortunately. Everybody in Iraq is going to suffer from this."

Shiite leaders have said they expect the Shiite- and Kurdish-controlled National Assembly to rubber-stamp the draft. Assembly approval would send it to a national vote, which must be held by Oct. 15.

If the constitution passes the referendum, a new, full-term assembly would be elected by Dec. 15. But if voters reject it, the December election would be for an assembly that would serve just one year and would try again to frame an acceptable constitution -- a process that, with Iraq's already inflamed sectarian and ethnic tensions, would put great stress on the country's fragile government-building effort.

The constitutional talks have played out as rifts grow within Iraqi society. After heavy fighting between rival Shiite militias last week subsided in the south, Sunni tribes battled Saturday in the west and north, Sunni tribal leaders and others said.

In Qaim, near the Syrian border, at least 35 people were killed in mortar, rocket and small-arms battles between a local tribe allied with Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent group, which has vowed to kill anyone who takes part in elections, and a rival tribe that has worked with the local government, said tribal leaders and hospital officials.

In Dawr, another mostly Sunni city north of Baghdad, bombers blew up a mosque that the Iraqi Islamic Party was using as headquarters and badly damaged a school serving as a voter-registration center, party and school officials said.

Throughout the constitutional negotiations, the toughest issue remained federalism, which Sunnis and many Shiites say would allow the oil-rich, heavily Shiite south to form a separate federal region like the already autonomous Kurdish north. In a key compromise, Shiites decided to leave the creation of any new federal region other than Kurdistan to the next National Assembly, officials said.

That was the concession pushed by President Bush in a phone call last week to Abdul Aziz Hakim, the head of a leading Shiite religious party in Iraq's coalition government, one official familiar with the talks said.

Bush's call indicated strong U.S. pressure on Shiites to make compromises in hopes of winning Sunni support for the constitution and defusing the country's Sunni-led insurgency.

"I told them we found it absolutely necessary for the benefit of Iraq as well as we who are involved here now, the American blood and treasure being engaged now, that they make the effort to get the Sunni buy-in," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. "We view the constitution as a national compact and view the Sunni buy-in as important not only for the constitution to work as a common road map for the country for the future . . . [but] as a military necessity -- we want to separate the population from extremists and insurgents."


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