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.
Sunni negotiators say they hope they can influence the creation of the federal system if they have more members in the next parliament.
Another change agreed to Tuesday waters down a passage in the draft charter referring to members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party as terrorists. The new language stipulates that "not all Baathists" are terrorists, Debagh said.
The senior official close to the talks, who spoke on condition he not be identified further, cautioned that even more last-minute changes to the deals might be made.
Debagh sounded less pleased than Kurdish and Sunni negotiators at Tuesday's compromises.
"This is the requirement of the Sunni," the Shiite negotiator said. "They have said if we do this, we will vote yes on the constitution."
Faction leaders said they would present the deal to parliament Wednesday afternoon. Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite who is deputy speaker of parliament, said he doubted lawmakers could muster the quorum needed to approve a final version of the draft constitution incorporating Tuesday's compromises.
With a four-day national curfew starting Thursday and a holiday called for on the day of the vote, lawmakers already have begun leaving Baghdad, Shahristani said. "I cannot see how it is possible for the members to come back to Baghdad," he said.
In addition, copies of the draft constitution went to press weeks ago and are already being distributed. Negotiators said Tuesday that they would rely on TV, radio and newspapers to give Iraqis the gist of changes in the charter.
"Until now, none of the normal people know that this has happened," said Jabouri, the Sunni negotiator. "I will announce my support on my satellite channel, and we will make sure people find out. I can say proudly that no more than 20 percent of Salahuddin province will say no, and 80 percent will say yes."
Salahuddin is one of at least three majority-Sunni provinces in Iraq. Defeating the constitution would take a no vote by two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces, and Sunnis in the west in particular have made clear in rallies, banners and statements that they intended to vote no.
Now, "the only opponents should be the Zarqawi people," Jabouri said, referring to followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the head of the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq. "They oppose everything. If they wrote the constitution, they would oppose it."
Across Iraq on Tuesday, car bombings killed at least 36 civilians and policemen. The deadliest was in Tall Afar, where a suicide attacker drove a car laden with explosives into a crowded market and detonated them, killing 30 people, said Abdullah Najim, a policeman in the city.
"This is a threatening message sent to the Sunnis before the referendum," Najim said.
Separately Tuesday, Britain expressed regret and offered to pay compensation for personal injuries and property damage caused last month when its troops raided a prison in southern Iraq to free two British special forces soldiers, Reuters said. The clash in Basra soured relations between Iraq and Britain and increased anger at the British military presence there.
Finer reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.