Deal in Iraq Raises Hopes For Passage of Constitution

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 11 -- Four days before Iraqis are to vote on their country's proposed constitution, Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish power brokers reached a breakthrough late Tuesday that revived hopes of winning Sunni support for the charter and defusing the Sunni-led insurgency by political means, Iraqi political leaders said.

Before the deal was announced, insurgents staged another in a string of major attacks that have come in advance of Saturday's referendum. A suicide car bombing in the northern city of Tall Afar killed 30 people, all civilians, police said.

The tentative accord, which would allow the constitution to be changed early next year, was reached through closed-door deals made largely by political party chiefs rather than members of the committee that wrote the charter. A parliamentary leader questioned whether enough time was left for the National Assembly to give it legal approval before the referendum.

But after weeks of stalemate over a draft constitution that largely shut out the demands of Iraq's disempowered Sunni Arab minority and raised fears of even greater sectarian and insurgent violence, some Sunni negotiators accepted Tuesday's changes with clear relief.

"With the changes, I will give my full support to the constitution," said Mishan Jabouri, a Sunni Arab who was involved in negotiations. An opponent of the previous draft, Jabouri had said he stayed in the talks only at the coaxing of Middle Eastern diplomats.

"Before now, I felt like I am losing. We are losing our power, we are losing our country, and I am like a foreigner living here," Jabouri said. "Now everything has changed. This constitution, I think any Arab Sunni can support it."

"I believe the key part of the Sunni community will come on board," said another senior Iraqi official close to the talks. "We have come very far at the very last minute."

The deal was achieved largely because of what U.S. officials have called "tweaking" encouraged by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The diplomat has pushed for unceasing negotiations to win Sunni approval since late August, when Shiite and Kurdish leaders of Iraq's transitional government approved a draft over Sunni objections.

The major concession from Tuesday's talks was agreement by the Shiites and Kurds that a committee be created early next year to consider amendments to the constitution, if voters approve it Saturday, said Ali Debagh, a top Shiite official involved in the talks. Any changes recommended by the committee would have to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of parliament and a national referendum, Debagh said.

The compromise appealed to the Sunni Arabs, observers said, because the changes would be put before a new parliament, to be elected Dec. 15. Sunnis have had comparatively little say in the existing parliament because they largely stayed away from the polls when the body was elected in January. Because the Sunni Arabs heeded insurgents' threats of violence against anyone who voted and their own leaders' calls for a boycott, Shiites captured a majority of seats and allied themselves with ethnic Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims, to form a strong governing coalition.

Despite continued warnings by insurgents, Sunni Arabs have vowed to vote Saturday and in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, and they expect to have greater representation in the next parliament. During the registration period for Saturday's vote, hundreds of thousands of people signed up in the heavily Sunni west.

The Sunnis' most visceral objection to the draft constitution is the provision for remaking Iraq into a loose federation with a weak central government. The federation would include a highly independent Kurdish north and possibly an oil-rich, Shiite ministate in the south, leaving Sunnis in the resource-poor center and west.

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