- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials completed work on a new constitution yesterday, but the draft was rejected by Sunni Arab negotiators, setting the stage for a bitter campaign leading up to the Oct. 15 referendum.

The absence of a Sunni Arab endorsement, after more than two months of intense negotiation, dashed hopes that the document would undermine Sunni support for a violent insurgency and raised fears of even more violence.

The draft was read in its entirety to parliament, but no vote was taken because none was legally required. At one time, officials wanted a vote as an affirmation of unity, but the idea was shelved because of Sunni objections and repeated delays in finalizing the draft.

Sheik Humam Hammoudi, a Shi’ite and chairman of the drafting committee, said 5 million copies of the constitution will be circulated nationwide in the food allotments that each Iraqi family receives monthly from the government.

Sunni negotiators delivered their rejection in a joint statement shortly after the draft was submitted to parliament. They branded the final version as “illegitimate” and asked the Arab League, the United Nations and “international organizations” to intervene “so that this document is not passed.”

Such intervention is unlikely, and no further amendments to the draft are possible under the law, said a legal expert on the drafting committee, Hussein Addab.

“I think if this constitution passes as it is, it will worsen everything in the country,” Sunni negotiator Saleh al-Mutlaq said.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush expressed disappointment that the Sunnis had not signed on but pinned his hopes on the referendum.

“Some Sunnis have expressed reservations about various provisions in the constitution, and that’s their right as free individuals in a free society,” Mr. Bush said, adding that the referendum was a chance for Iraqis to “set the foundation for a permanent Iraqi government.”

But the depth of disillusionment within the Sunni establishment extended beyond the 15 negotiators, who were appointed to the constitutional committee at U.S. urging in June.

Vice President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni, didn’t show up at a Sunday ceremony marking completion of the document. When President Jalal Talabani said Mr. al-Yawer was ill, senior officials including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi howled with laughter.

“The constitution is left to our people to approve or reject it,” said Mr. Talabani, a Kurd. “I hope that our people will accept it despite some flaws.”

A top Sunni who did attend the ceremony, parliament Speaker Hajim al-Hassani, said he thought the final document contained “too much religion” and too little protection of women’s rights. He said it would be hard to sell it to the Sunnis.

Despite last-minute concessions from the majority Shi’ites and Kurds, the Sunnis said the document threatened the unity of Iraq and its place in the Arab world.

Major deal-breaking issues included federalism, Iraq’s identity in the Arab world and references to former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party. Sunnis fear federalism would lead to the breakup of the country into a Kurdish north and Shi’ite south, cutting them off from the nation’s oil wealth.

Although Sunnis account for only 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated 27 million people, they still can derail the constitution in the referendum under a concession made to the Kurds in the 2004 interim constitution. If two-thirds of voters in any three provinces reject the charter, the constitution will be defeated. Sunnis have the majority in at least four provinces.

Defeat of the constitution would force new elections for a parliament that would begin the drafting process from scratch.

Militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has broken with other Shi’ites and spoken out against the constitution. Sheik al-Sadr has been making overtures to hard-line Sunni clerics in a common front against the draft and the U.S. presence here.

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