Iraqis Finish Draft Charter That Sunnis Vow to Defeat

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.

The Sunnis submitted additional demands Saturday, and negotiations ended.

If the referendum succeeds, the document will become the new Iraq's founding charter. If two-thirds majorities in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it, a new parliament, to be elected in December, will begin the drafting process anew.

Speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., President Bush, who with other U.S. officials had urged that the document be completed, called the draft "a document of which the Iraqis and the rest of the world can be proud."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have long maintained that participation in the political process by Sunnis -- who largely boycotted national elections in January and are believed to make up the bulk of the insurgency -- was crucial to establishing stability that would allow for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Military commanders had predicted a spike in insurgent attacks at the culmination of the constitution-writing process, but Sunday was relatively quiet across much of the country.

In Baghdad, however, U.S. troops killed Waleed Khaled, a sound technician for the Reuters news agency, and wounded a Reuters cameraman when they opened fire on the journalists' vehicle, the agency reported. The incident is under investigation, the military said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, at a news conference, said the draft constitution "provides a vision for the future, one based on democratic values and Iraqi tradition. It is a good document."

Khalilzad said he was disappointed by the negative reaction from Sunnis but attributed it in part to threats against them. "You heard some of them say that they like the document, but if they openly support it, their lives could be at risk," he said.

In a remark unusual for a U.S. ambassador in the Arab world, Khalilzad compared the Iraqi draft constitution's personal status law to Israel's, saying that both allow men and women a choice of civil and religious legal options in matters of marriage and divorce.

All sides involved in the negotiations said the stakes would be high in the referendum. Sunnis have reportedly been registering to vote in large numbers, encouraged by the same leaders who urged them to boycott the January elections.

"We will not stay on the sideline this time, and I think we can make the constitution fail in Anbar, Salahuddin, Nineveh and Diyala," said Jabouri, referring to four provinces where Sunnis are believed to be a majority.

Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite member of the constitutional committee, expressed concern that violence could result if Sunni attempts to block the document failed. "We are ready for the referendum and we will win," he said. If the Sunnis "feel they are outside of Iraq and want to cause problems, that is up to them."

Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and an adviser to the Kurds, said that if the referendum failed, the Kurds might push for full independence from Iraq.

"If this constitution is rejected, the next negotiations are going to be about the partition of the country," he said.

As word spread that the draft had been completed, al-Iraqiya television played a music video of celebrations in the streets with lyrics proclaiming that "the constitution of the people is in the hands of the people now."

About 250 people gathered on the banks of the Euphrates River in the southern Shiite city of Kufa, beating drums, waving Iraqi flags and chanting "go die Baathists" and "yes, yes for the constitution." Sunni areas, where several large protests against the constitution had taken place in recent days, were largely quiet.

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company