Sunnis to resume constitution role

Their demands are met for security guards, assassination probe

July 26, 2005|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sunni Arab leaders who suspended participation in drafting Iraq's new constitution after one of their negotiators was assassinated said yesterday that they would return to the talks, probably today, after receiving assurances from Iraqi and U.S. officials.

"We have decided to rejoin," said Ayad Samuray, a member of the Sunni delegation and a senior figure in the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The Sunni delegates had left last week after one of their negotiators, Mijbal Issa, was assassinated along with a legal adviser to the delegation. Although the assassination was the precipitating factor, Sunnis also had expressed unease with the failure of Kurds and Shiites to take Sunni positions seriously.

The key to their return was the assurance that the government would pay for security guards for Sunni delegation members, just as it does for members of the National Assembly, even though the Sunni delegates are not elected Assembly members.

A second factor was the agreement to have the Iraqi judiciary investigate the killings with the participation of a Sunni observer. Sunnis had objected to a proposed Interior Ministry investigation, claiming the ministry has many Shiite employees who are biased against Sunnis.

"Most of our problems are at the Ministry of the Interior," said Samuray. "It's not anyone in particular. I don't have anything against any particular group, but we have a lot of distrust for the ministry, so people prefer to have others do such a sensitive investigation."

The Sunnis also demanded that the chairman of the commission drafting the constitution retract statements suggesting that the draft was nearly done. The commission is facing an Aug. 15 deadline. There was no formal retraction, but Kurdish and Shiite members of the National Assembly made a point of saying that they were waiting for the Sunnis to return before turning to the harder issues on which disagreement remains.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad hailed the Sunni decision to return and said the United States would consider helping in any way it can.

Khalizad also sent mixed messages about how long the Americans might stay in Iraq. He spoke of having Iraqi troops replace Americans but suggested that there could be troop adjustments involving a short-term increase in troop strength, as well as a longer-term reduction in U.S. forces.

"We are here to help during this transition," he said. "We will stay as long as we are needed. We will adjust the composition of the force, the size of the force, as needed. As Iraqis build up, as President Bush has said, we will go down."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and members of the Cabinet. Australia has more than 700 troops in Iraq and has been one of the staunchest supporters of the United States.

In continuing violence in Samarra, a city north of Baghdad, the head of the local council, Taha Ahmed, was assassinated along with an associate yesterday.

A U.S. soldier was killed near Samarra when an explosive device detonated under his vehicle, the military said yesterday. His name was being withheld until his family had been notified.

There were also efforts to end the violence. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi announced that tribal leaders from the turbulent northern city of Tal Afar and government officials had reached an agreement under which tribal leaders would stop siding with insurgents and all armed men would leave the streets. In exchange the government would release innocent residents from prison and provide resources such as electricity and water.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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