Iraqis Finish Draft Charter That Sunnis Vow to Defeat

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani addresses reporters in Baghdad's Green Zone following completion of the draft charter.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani addresses reporters in Baghdad's Green Zone following completion of the draft charter. "I want to congratulate our people who struggled against dictatorship for democracy and freedom," Talabani said. (Pool Photo/by Ceerwan Aziz Via Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 -- Iraqi leaders completed a draft of a permanent constitution Sunday after three months of negotiations that left Sunni Arabs unsatisfied, setting up a potentially divisive nationwide referendum on the document, to be held by Oct. 15.

Members of the committee that convened in May to write the document ended their official duties by signing the draft and sending it to the National Assembly, where it was read aloud to members. Some Sunnis, who had unsuccessfully sought the elimination of a clause allowing power to be devolved from the central government to autonomous regions, walked out while the draft was read.

Committee members, most of them drawn from the Shiite Muslim and Kurdish coalition that controls Iraq's government, and other Iraqi officials then adjourned to President Jalal Talabani's home in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone for a sun-drenched ceremony to mark the occasion.

"I want to congratulate our people who struggled against dictatorship for democracy and freedom," said Talabani, flanked by dozens of colleagues. "This constitution is a first of its kind, written by representatives of important Iraqi factions."

Talabani said that to Muslims, only the Koran, the Islamic holy book, is perfect, adding that "we hope the people will accept this constitution, but we don't deny there are some disputes."

As the event concluded, several people celebrated with high-pitched ululations. But some attendees were in no mood for festivities.

"It was a nice show for the president of the United States as he wakes up now, but for us it was very bad," said Mishan Jabouri, one of four Sunni Arab assembly members among the dozens of lawmakers at the event. None of the Sunnis expressed support for the constitution.

Jabouri said he attended the celebration after being pressured "from parts of the government. They tried to show even the Sunnis are here. But we come here to cry, not to be happy. This is their constitution, not ours."

And so the battle lines were drawn for the fall referendum: The Shiites and Kurds, who dominated the drafting process, implored the public to vote in favor of it. Minority Sunnis condemned the document for, among other things, allowing the creation of federal regions that they fear could split Iraq and warned that it could inflame the insurgency. The Sunnis vowed to muster enough support to vote it down.

Under the terms of Iraq's interim constitution, a draft of the permanent constitution was supposed to have been completed by Aug. 15. Lawmakers initially gave themselves an additional week to work, submitted an incomplete draft Aug. 22 and allowed three more days to resolve outstanding differences. Negotiations broke off after that deadline, and another was missed.

In the end, many of the same disputes the committee wrestled with from the start remained unresolved. In addition to the issue of federalism, Sunnis objected to a provision outlawing former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which was made up largely of Sunnis, and wanted language that made clear Iraq was part of the Arab world.

In recent days, Shiites and Kurds made what they said was a final compromise offer. It retained the principle of federalism and enshrined the Kurds' long-held autonomy in the north, but deferred decisions about how and when new federal states could be formed until the next legislature. It also removed the ban on the Baath Party, while prohibiting the party's "Saddamist" branch and symbols.

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