By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 13, 2005
BAGHDAD, Oct. 12 -- Iraqi political leaders clasped hands over the heads of children waving roses Wednesday evening on the floor of the National Assembly as they celebrated the adoption of compromises aimed at winning Sunni Arab support for a new constitution.
With Iraqis scheduled to vote Saturday on whether to adopt the proposed charter, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish leaders said they had yielded to all the changes demanded by Sunni Arabs opposed to the draft. The Shiites and Kurds depicted the compromises as a victory for the forces of national reconciliation after months of factional and sectarian bloodshed.
Meanwhile, insurgent violence struck the northern city of Tall Afar again Wednesday, when a second suicide bombing in as many days killed 30 people, this time men gathered at an army recruiting center.
The Sunnis' leading political organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, endorsed the compromises, which conceded some sticking points and put off others until a new National Assembly is elected. Other major Sunni parties withheld support, however, splitting what had been solid Sunni opposition to the proposed document.
State television, controlled by loyalists of the Shiite religious party that leads Iraq's transitional government, aired what it described as live footage of crowds dancing in the streets of the Shiite holy city of Najaf to celebrate the accord. The scenes were actually filmed earlier in the week -- before the agreement was reached -- as shopkeepers and a reporter watched. No such celebrations were seen in the streets of Najaf on Wednesday.
Some Sunni politicians treated the accord as equally suspect.
"This is a kind of a trick," said Khalaf Elayan of the National Dialogue Council, who said he was surprised by the compromises reached late Tuesday. "We already felt there's something tricky going on. We will urge people to vote in the referendum, but to vote no."
Sunni leaders not included in the latest talks were initially slightly receptive to the revised draft charter, but their response hardened measurably Wednesday. Representatives of the Muslim Scholars Association, a clerical bloc that has the greatest single influence among Iraq's Sunni minority, at first declared itself neutral on the revised charter but later called on Sunnis to vote it down.
Posters placed on mosques in the western city of Ramadi in the name of the main insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, by late Wednesday threatened to kill Iraqi Islamic Party members for breaking from the Sunnis' opposition to the charter.
It was unclear whether the split among Sunni groups was enough to remove any chance that the constitution would be rejected, which would take a "no" vote by two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces. The continuing opposition of the Muslim Scholars Association could prove more influential in this regard than the Iraqi Islamic Party's backing of the charter.
Shiite and Kurdish leaders insisted the concessions and the intentions behind them were genuine. They called the accord a major step toward defusing the anger fueling the Sunni insurgency against U.S.-led forces and the Shiite majority brought to power by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"This is the day of national consensus," said President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
"I cannot say all agreed," Talabani said. "But there is no excuse or justification for the Sunni brothers to boycott after we accepted all their demands and suggestions without changing a letter in them. Their task now is to participate with us and vote 'yes' for the constitution and cooperate with us to fight terrorism and the people who want to destroy the country."
Earlier Wednesday, Iraqis were presented with the unlikely picture of the country's top Shiite political leader, the normally dour Abdul Aziz Hakim, beaming under his black turban as he announced the deal with Kurdish and Sunni faction leaders.
"This constitution has thoughts and ideas that we started to work on since we were in the Iraqi opposition,'' Hakim told reporters at a news conference. "Today was a symbol of the consensus among the factions of the Iraqi people who gave birth to this constitutional draft."
The National Assembly, a transitional body elected in January with a primary mandate of drafting a constitution, was given a verbal rundown of the changes late Wednesday. No vote was taken before political chiefs declared the draft official.
The chief compromise in the deal creates a new committee that would look at amending disputed provisions of the constitution after a new National Assembly is elected Dec. 15. Amending the constitution then would take a two-thirds vote in the assembly and another national referendum.
Sunni leaders, whose constituency largely stayed out of the January elections, say they expect a heavy Sunni turnout in December and a resulting increase in representation in the next assembly.
There appears to be no guarantee that federalism, the provision most disliked by Sunnis, would be put up for renegotiation, however. Shiites and Kurds envision Iraq as a loose federation -- comprising a separate Kurdish region in the north and possibly a Shiite region in the oil-rich south -- with a weak central government. Sunnis say that would break up Iraq and rob them of power and national resources.
Other changes include strengthening the constitution's characterization of Iraq as a partly Arab nation and a unified country -- both demands made by Sunni Arabs.
The changes mean Iraqis will vote Saturday on what is essentially a promise to write key parts of the constitution later. The alternative, scrapping the current draft, would mean starting over: A new parliament would have to be elected to write another draft constitution.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, identified by many as the single greatest influence on behalf of Sunni inclusion in the constitution-making process, encouraged Iraqis to disregard misleading accounts of the draft charter.
"I urge everyone in Iraq not to listen to the interpretations, to read it for themselves and to think about the future of Iraq," Khalilzad said after the National Assembly session.
Asked how Iraqis were supposed to find out about the changes, with the vote two days away and printing and distribution of revised copies impossible, Khalilzad told reporters there was "ample opportunity."
"I understand Iraqis watch a lot of TV," he said.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Naseer Nouri and Saad Sarhan in Najaf, and correspondent Jonathan Finer in Najaf contributed to this report.