Leaders in Iraq avert constitutional crisis

They will wait 18 months before setting up autonomous regions

parliament to consider amendments

September 25, 2006|By Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed | Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's sectarian leaders stepped back from a simmering constitutional crisis yesterday, agreeing to wait at least 18 months before setting up autonomous regions that would shift power away from the central government.

During the cooling-off period, Iraq's parliament would consider amendments to the country's constitution, providing a public forum for the divisive issue of autonomy.

The deal, which was being fine-tuned last night, allows lawmakers to avoid a looming constitutional deadline that threatened to worsen the sectarian violence ravaging the country.

The compromise leaves intact the goal of southern Shiite Muslims and northern Kurds to create a federal system that would strengthen their hold on the vast oil resources of their two regions. At the same time, the nation's Sunni Arabs, who dominate in the resource-poor central and western provinces, would have time to seek constitutional changes to limit the impact of autonomy.

Lawmakers of all of the major political blocs participated in the closed-door talks that produced the constitutional compromise that will be brought to the parliament this week for approval.

"I feel this agreement has ended a political crisis," said Dhafir Ani of the minority Sunni bloc that opposed the federal system. "I think for us this deal is good but not perfect."

Those present said the agreement calls for parliament to appoint a committee that will have a year to recommend amendments to the constitution. The members are to be named today. Parliament will begin debate tomorrow on proposals for forming a federal system. At least four groups have written competing drafts of the power-sharing law, but the one offered by the majority Shiite bloc is expected to prevail. The 18-month waiting period for implementation would begin once the law is passed.

A clause allowing amendments was inserted into the constitution as a last-minute concession to Sunnis who objected to the mandate for a federal system. The constitution also set a deadline that would have required implementation of the new federal system by Oct. 22.

Party leaders played down the idea that the federalism clause would be the primary item on the new committee's agenda.

Ayad Samiraii, a Sunni member of parliament who was involved in the talks, said the committee would provide an opportunity to put aside sectarian issues and consider a variety of amendments in the national interest.

The breakthrough occurred on a day in which bombings and assassinations claimed dozens more lives and a gruesome videotape of two dead American soldiers being mutilated was broadcast on Iraqi television.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of two Marines in Anbar province yesterday. It did not release their names.

The video, an expanded version of a clip aired during the summer, purported to show two soldiers killed in June in an area south of Baghdad. The Mujahedeen Shura Council, a group linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for that attack, which was widely reported at the time.

The group said the deaths were in retaliation for the March raid in which U.S. soldiers allegedly raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and members of her family. Five U.S. soldiers and a former member of their unit are facing charges that range from rape and murder to failing to report the incident.

The expanded video aired several times yesterday on the hourly Al-Arabiya news. It showed masked men tying the bodies to a truck by their heels and then driving off. A later scene showed the bodies engulfed in flames.

Authorities in Baghdad, meanwhile, reported that 45 bodies were received at the morgue yesterday, eight victims of assassination and the remainder killed and dumped after being kidnapped.

Several car bombs left a string of deaths in eastern Baghdad. Two Iraqi police were killed and several police and civilians wounded by a blast at 10:30 a.m. in the Rusafa neighborhood, and a second bomb targeting police in Elwiya killed a civilian. In the afternoon, a car bomb exploded near the Baghdad morgue, killing four police and two civilians and injuring eight.

Health Minister Ali Shimmeri escaped an assassination attempt when a roadside bomb detonated as his motorcade passed in Yarmuk, in south Baghdad. There were no casualties.

Five people were killed in separate attacks in Baqoubah, north of Baghdad.

Police in the northern city of Kirkuk said they found the bodies of four unidentified shooting victims who had been tortured.

A curfew was imposed in the southern city of Samawah after a former Iraqi translator for the U.S. military was gunned down late Saturday, said the police commander of Muthana province.

Armed men stormed into a government building in Hillah in the south, killing a guard.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said yesterday that American and Iraqi forces had killed 14 people and detained more than 25 in several strikes on terrorist cells last week. The raids, in five provinces, also yielded several caches of weapons and explosive devices. In one attack, three men wearing suicide vests were killed by aircraft fire in Anbar province, the statement said.

Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed write for the Los Angeles Times.

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