- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

BAGHDAD — A week after the draft constitution was declared final, discreet talks were under way to refine language in a bid to win Sunni approval and ease fears of Iraq’s Arab neighbors that the charter will loosen the country’s ties to the Arab world, officials said yesterday.

As negotiators discussed possible changes, thousands of Shi’ite supporters and Sunni opponents of the document took to the streets yesterday to express their views ahead of the decisive Oct. 15 referendum.

Sunni Arabs rejected the charter that was approved Sunday by the Shi’ites and Kurds, who dominate parliament and government. The Sunnis cited a number of points, including federalism, references to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated party and the description of Iraq as a Muslim — but not Arab — country.

Iraqi authorities also plan to delay the start of Saddam’s first trial until four days after the referendum to avoid further polarization, a judicial official said yesterday.

With the stakes so high, the United States has been pushing the factions to continue efforts to overcome differences, even though the law forbids further changes in the draft.

“Discussions are under way to make minor changes in the language to improve the text to satisfy some parties,” Shi’ite negotiator Khalid al-Attiyah said.

Sunni Arab and Kurdish negotiators confirmed talks were continuing, but a Western diplomat cautioned against speculation of dramatic changes.

“We understand there is ongoing dialogue between Sunni negotiators and the Shi’ites and Kurds,” said the diplomat.

“We don’t have the specifics of what is being negotiated, but we know they are discussing language changes and slight modifications that would bring the sides closer,” the diplomat said.

Arab League diplomats said they were concerned about language that would appear to weaken Iraq’s ties to the Arab world by identifying Iraq only as an Islamic country.

The wording was a concession to the non-Arab Kurds, but one Kurdish official said the Kurds were willing to show some flexibility.

“Yes, probably some words will be changed here and there, and this issue is under discussion, especially the Iraqi identity,” Kurdish negotiator Mahmoud Othman said. “We are discussing this article aiming at achieving an aspiration of the Arab League as well as to satisfy some parties.”

In mostly Shi’ite Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, an estimated 5,000 people marched in support of the constitution, carrying banners saying it would bring “freedom and justice.”

But about 2,000 people, mostly Sunnis, staged an anti-constitution rally in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. A smaller anti-constitution rally was held outside a Sunni mosque in Ramadi.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said two American soldiers were killed Thursday in Baghdad after their patrol was struck by a roadside bomb and a third was fatally shot Wednesday in the central Iraqi city of Iskandariyah.

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