Iraq extends deadline again for constitution

Draft sent to parliament

session ends without vote

Key issues are left unsettled

Leaders get 3 more days to gain support of Sunnis

August 23, 2005|By Borzou Daragahi and Ashraf Khalil | Borzou Daragahi and Ashraf Khalil,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Shiite and Kurdish politicians beat a midnight deadline yesterday and submitted a draft constitution to Iraq's National Assembly, but lawmakers postponed voting on the document for three days in a final bid to gain the support of skeptical Sunni Arab leaders.

After months of negotiations and a one-week extension, lawmakers had been expected to either approve a draft constitution by yesterday, officially endorse another delay or scrap the whole process and start over with new elections. Instead, visibly tired politicians muddled through to a half-resolution, presenting a document that left several key issues unsettled.

People who have viewed the document said it includes vague language weakening Iraq's strong central government, enshrining a federalist system, and addressing how oil revenue is to be split between Baghdad and the provinces.

The text calls for liberties such as freedom of expression and the press. It gives Islam a role in national affairs, while offering Iraqis the option of following civil code in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

But the drafting committee left it up to the assembly to sort out such issues as specifics on regional rights, the language of the preamble, the removal of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party members from government and the exact role of the presidency, officials said.

"We want a good, solid constitution," said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister and a Kurd. "We don't want to force a deal on any group that they're uncomfortable with."

Sunni Arab members of the drafting committee quickly rejected the Shiite-Kurd text, loudly denounced the process and threatened to work against the document if the assembly endorses it and submits it to the public in an October referendum.

"This constitution is full of mines that are going to explode," Salah Mutlak, one of 15 Sunnis on the charter panel, told reporters. "The articles stipulated in this constitution will have grave consequences if they are submitted to a referendum. This constitution will lead to a weak Iraq that is unable to defend itself."

Among other groups, though, news of the presentation of the draft was met with elation. State-controlled Al-Iraqiya television broadcast raucous scenes of celebration on the streets of Najaf, the Shiite shrine city south of Baghdad that is the political and spiritual backbone of the Shiite-dominated government in the capital.

Men danced in the streets waving Kalashnikov rifles and Iraqi flags. Cars and trucks packed with jubilant passengers honked their horns and slowed traffic as men served sweets to revelers on the banks of the Euphrates River.

"We are so pleased by the issuing of the constitution, and we pray that God takes the hands of our respectable leaders," an old man in a traditional Arabic gown told a reporter.

With Shiite Muslim and Kurdish politicians dominating the National Assembly, some of their constituents have been urging them to approve a constitution without backing from Sunni Arabs. But Iraqi and U.S. politicians have sought for months to include Sunnis in the process, arguing that doing so could help quell the Sunni-led insurgency.

U.S. Embassy officials, heavily involved in pressing all sides to quickly come up with a deal palatable to Iraq's disparate groups, huddled with Iraqi leaders until the final moments. The Bush administration reacted to the fast-moving developments in Baghdad much as they did to last week's delay: They praised Iraqi delegates for their courage and their efforts, and described the move as a sign of progress.

Shortly after the three-day delay was announced, the White House issued a statement welcoming the draft constitution's presentation to the assembly as "another step forward in Iraq's constitutional process."

Shiite and Kurdish officials said the constitution was more than 90 percent finished - something they have been saying for weeks. The draft constitution has elements sure to rankle and delight all Iraqis, said Barham Salih, planning minister and one of the chief constitutional negotiators.

On the divisive issue of women's rights in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, the constitution would allow Iraqis to choose to have the matters heard in religious courts run by clerics or in federal courts run by judges.

On the role of religion in legislation, the draft constitution calls Islam "a main source" of legislation instead of "the main source," as many conservative Shiites had demanded. But it would allow clerics to serve on the Supreme Court.

Politicians said a formula for distributing oil revenue had been worked out, though they disclosed few details.

Salih said the major Shiite, Kurdish and secular political parties had hammered out their differences but balked at approving a constitution without the approval of Sunnis, who have a disproportionately small number of seats in the legislature because they largely stayed away from the National Assembly election in January.

"Between the Shiite list, the Kurdish list and [former secular Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi's list, we could literally go and get 90 percent in parliament," he said. "But we don't want to play it that way. We want to reach out to the Sunnis and bring them on board."

Though they make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, Sunni Arabs dominated Iraqi political affairs for decades until the ouster of Hussein and his Baath Party in 2003. Now, they fear that weakening the central government and turning Iraq into a federation of states with substantial powers could lead to the disintegration of Iraq. Sunnis also disagree with a clause in the draft constitution that condemns the Baath Party's abuses.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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