- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

BAGHDAD — After failing once again to win over the minority Sunni Arabs to a proposed new constitution for Iraq, the Shi’ite-dominated constitution committee said it will submit an amended draft charter to parliament this weekend.

The chairman of the committee, Sheik Humam Hammoudi, a Shi’ite, said, “There has been an agreement on the differences including the federalism issue. This will give guarantees for the Sunnis.”

Federalism implies a weak central government and strong provinces dominated by the Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south.

But Sunni negotiators said they did not accept the revised document, and one of them, Saleh al-Mutlaq, called on Iraqis to reject the document in the Oct. 15 referendum, warning of a “terrifying and dark future awaiting Iraq.”

The development was a blow to President Bush’s efforts to rally support for a deal.

He telephoned a top Shi’ite leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who has called for a single Shi’ite province in the south, and urged the Shi’ites to make compromises with the Sunnis in the interest of national unity.

A process designed to bring Iraq’s disparate communities together appeared to be tearing them apart.

Despite more than two months of talks, the process bogged down because the various factions could not agree on fundamental issues involving the future of Iraq. These included the country’s identity, whether Iraq would continue as a centralized state or a federation based on religion and ethnicity, and whether former members of Sadam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, most of them Sunnis, would have a future in the new Iraq.

Also at issue has been the role of Islamic law and the status of women in the new Iraq.

But the issue of federalism is critical. Sunnis fear not only a giant Shi’ite state in the south but also future efforts by the Kurds to expand their region into northern oil-producing areas, as they have demanded. That would leave the Sunnis cut off from Iraq’s oil wealth in the north and south. More than a million Sunni Arabs live in areas dominated by Shi’ites.

Thousands demonstrated in a half-dozen cities in support of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a militant nationalist who opposes the weakening of central power.

Also, there were clashes with rival Shi’ites in the holy city of Karbala, part of ongoing friction that erupted among Shi’ites during the constitution crisis.

Mr. al-Mutlaq, the Sunni negotiator, told Al Jazeera television of the breakdown in the talks after Sunnis studied compromise proposals offered by the Shi’ites on federalism and purges of former Ba’ath Party members.

The Sunnis had asked that decisions on both issues be delayed until a new parliament is elected in December, but the Shi’ite offer was insufficient to satisfy Sunni demands.

“There is a terrifying and dark future awaiting Iraq,” he said. “It is important to present services for the Iraqis now, as well as to maintain security, and it is not important to write a piece of paper that all Iraqis disagree on.”

“This is the end of the road,” government spokesman Laith Kubba told Al Arabiya television. “In the end, we will put this constitution to the people to decide.”

Mr. Kubba, a Shi’ite, told Al Arabiya that the conflict was among rival visions for Iraq.

“An agreement between all parties is an illusion and a consensus is impossible. Therefore, the draft must be put for the people” to decide.

The Shi’ite alliance and the Kurds together control 221 of the 275 parliament seats and could win easily in a parliamentary vote on the charter, which requires only a majority. And with 60 percent of the population, the Shi’ites and their Kurdish allies are gambling that the draft would win approval in the referendum.

However, the perception that the Shi’ites and Kurds will push through a document unacceptable to the Sunnis could sharpen religious and ethnic tensions.

Mr. al-Mutlaq’s statements came after parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani canceled a planned press conference expected before midnight and instructed a television crew to shut down for the night.

For the United States the stakes in an acceptable political process are huge. The United States hopes an acceptable solution will in time curb the Sunni-dominated insurgency, and along with a better-trained and equipped Iraqi security force, enable the Americans and their international partners to begin bringing home some of their troops next year.

With more than 1,800 U.S. deaths since the war began in 2003 and falling poll numbers, the White House needs to show something positive from Iraq to counter the depressing litany of car bombings, assassinations and American battle deaths.

Sadoun Zubaydi, a Sunni member of the drafting committee, blamed the Americans for interfering in what was supposed to be an Iraqi process.

“To the last minute, this supposedly Iraqi process is being dictated by the U.S. government,” he said.

AP correspondents Slobodan Lekic, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Bassem Mroue and Hamed Ahmed contributed to this report.

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