Bargain Sought on Iraqi Charter A Week Ahead of Historic Vote

Iraqis in Baghdad read copies of the proposed constitution Wednesday even as it was being renegotiated in the week before the vote.
Iraqis in Baghdad read copies of the proposed constitution Wednesday even as it was being renegotiated in the week before the vote. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 9, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 8 -- One week before Iraqis vote on a constitution intended to remake their nation, U.S. and Arab diplomats are scrambling to broker last-minute concessions from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish faction leaders that would persuade the Sunni Arab minority to drop its opposition to the proposed charter and defuse the country's Sunni-led insurgency.

Saudi Arabian and Jordanian officials, at the urging of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, have called on Sunni politicians in Iraq to stick with negotiations until Monday, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. Iraqi lawmakers say Monday is the last possible date for bargaining over the language of the constitution, which will be put to voters next Saturday. Ballots are already being printed at a plant in Europe, and the first of millions of copies of the proposed constitution have been distributed across Iraq.

The constitutional referendum has been described by Iraqi and foreign observers as the most significant milestone so far in the development of Iraq's nascent democracy. Completion of the drafting process on Aug. 28 -- two weeks behind schedule -- was supposed to be a unifying process, and parties and activists were to have used the subsequent two months to make their cases for and against the proposed document.

But the version endorsed in August by the Shiite- and Kurdish-led National Assembly was immediately condemned by Sunnis, who had seen their political dominance of Iraq evaporate with the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. As Shiite and Kurdish officials attempted to bring holdout Sunnis on board, negotiations never fully halted. Their goal, according to American diplomats, is a broad national accord to bridge the divide.

"We have to reach out to get support, especially Sunni support but also backing from Shiites and Kurds, and present it as a national compact. We want to do it before the election," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

But the official acknowledged that the last-ditch diplomacy has been a struggle. "We don't have any Sunnis on board now. We have people who say, 'If you can come up with a package, we'll sign on,' " said the senior official. "We're working with Shiites and Kurds, who also have things they want. So a package is shaping up."

Mishan Jabouri, a Sunni member of the current transitional parliament, said: "I am not sure what else we can do. Some of us want to boycott. Some want people to vote no. Everyone is waiting for Monday, because after that it is really too late."

If two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces vote no, the constitution would be rejected and the new parliament elected in December would have to draft another proposal. Sunni Arabs represent about a fifth of Iraq's population, and Sunni leaders believe that if they muster strong turnout in the handful of provinces where their numbers approach a majority, they could block the constitution.

Some U.S. officials say they hope Sunni turnout will be large enough to give legitimacy to the referendum but too weak to defeat the constitution. Some officials say that having to begin the constitution-drafting process all over again would only worsen instability and push back the possible withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Others, including Gen. George Casey, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, say settling on a compact that shuts out the Sunnis would do the same.

Among the Sunnis' many concerns are the draft's commitment to the concept of federalism, which would formalize the autonomy enjoyed by Kurds in northern Iraq since after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and allow Shiites to form their own highly autonomous federal region in the oil-rich south, where they predominate. Sunnis fear such subdivisions would split Iraq, leaving them only provinces that are poor and largely devoid of precious resources like oil.

In one potential shift, however, a Western diplomat said Saturday that many Sunnis in western Iraq were now calling for federalism themselves, hoping to create a Sunni region there that would be free of both U.S. troops and the new Iraqi military, which is made up largely of Kurdish and Shiite forces.

A U.S. official in Washington said another possibility under consideration was to reopen negotiations on the constitution for a set period in the weeks immediately following parliamentary elections set for mid-December.

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