Key Shiite Backs Away From Charter Accord

Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of leading Shiite political party in Iraq, prays with other members. Hakim said the constitution's
Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of leading Shiite political party in Iraq, prays with other members. Hakim said the constitution's "essence" must be preserved. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

BAGHDAD, Jan. 11 -- Iraq's most influential Shiite politician said Wednesday that he would not allow a new government to "change the essence" of the country's constitution, despite a promise made to Sunni Arabs that it would be opened to major revision.

The promise of future changes to the constitution had been a key concession to encourage Sunni Arabs to join the political process in Iraq and stop violence. Last summer, Sunnis were ready to walk away from the negotiating table as the country's ruling Shiite and Kurdish coalition wrote a constitution that allowed the creation of strong regional provinces.

In a last-minute deal negotiated under heavy pressure from U.S. diplomats, the three groups agreed that the draft constitution would be put to a national referendum in October as planned but would be open to change for four months after a new government was formed early this year.

But Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in the ruling coalition, appeared to back away from the constitutional compromise Wednesday.

"The first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution," Hakim said in a speech given during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, according to the Associated Press. "It is our responsibility to form Baghdad provinces and southern Iraq provinces."

A spokesman for Hakim's party confirmed the remarks. "The major points in the constitution were agreed to by all the parties that participated in the drafting of the constitution," Haitham Husseini, the spokesman, said in an interview. "As for changes in the powers, some points or details, these are open to negotiation. However, the main principles which were agreed to by all sides, and approved by the people in a popular referendum, they cannot be touched."

The most difficult issue is whether Iraq will have a strong central government or a federal government composed of largely autonomous regions. The Kurds and Shiites, who live in oil-rich areas, support federalism; the Sunnis, who have little oil in the areas they dominate, fear that the country will break apart and that they will be denied a share of the oil revenue.

While it would be a blow to Sunnis if they were unable to amend the constitution, which voters approved Oct. 15, a Sunni politician said he viewed Hakim's comments as a political ploy.

"I don't know why Mr. Hakim is saying this at this time," said Alaa Makki, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party in Iraq. "It's time for reconciliation, it's time for negotiation, it's time for participation in the political process."

However, a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was important "to remember that there's a lot of jockeying for political position going on. I think you have to look at the comments people are making as part of that process. Everyone is staking out their position in advance of the announcement of final election results."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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