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Iraq: Constitution Debate Continues For At Least Another Day Amid New Disputes

  • Charles Recknagel --> A protest yesterday against the constitution in Ba'qubah Wrangling over terms continues to hold up the finalizing of Iraq’s overdue draft constitution. Iraqi leaders say discussions will last at least another day, but have set no new deadline for wrapping up the process. Meanwhile, new disputes have arisen regarding the proper procedures for approving the draft document before it goes to a national referendum in October.

Prague, 26 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement that Iraqi leaders will take at least one more day to deliberate the draft constitution came early Friday morning from National Assembly speaker Hajim al-Hassani.

"Today, there were negotiations and all groups were there -- Kurds, Sunnis, and from the Iraqi lists. There were some suggestions which have been taken to the Alliance list [main Shi’a bloc in parliament]. It took us a long time, and we decided to take another day until we reach a result which satisfies all groups, and the constitution deserves the time to be drafted," al-Hassani said.

Al-Hassani spoke shortly after negotiators said they had been unable to finish the draft constitution by their midnight deadline yesterday.

But al-Hassani and other Iraqi leaders set no new timeline for ending the wrangling that already has seen the negotiators miss two earlier deadlines.

The draft constitution was originally due to be submitted to the National Assembly and approved by 15 August.

The way Iraqi leaders missed the midnight deadline leaves it unclear what will happen next.

The newest extension contradicts what had been firm statements throughout the day from top government officials that the process would not again go into overtime.

Laith Kubba, the spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari, told reporters earlier yesterday that all that was left was for the National Assembly to “rubber stamp” the draft document.

Now, as negotiators try once again to work out their differences, there are signs that patience is running out on all sides.

One Shi’a member of the constitutional drafting committee, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Reuters yesterday that he sees diminishing room for reaching a compromise.

"The issue of the federalism is still [unresolved]. I mean, the Sunni Arab brothers did not show a stance that makes us feel they really want to cooperate and conform with others. Conformity does not mean consensus. The problem is that they have a very strict stance, which we cannot understand. The issue remains unsolved," al-Dabbagh said.

Sunni negotiators confirmed the impasse. One, Haseeb Aref, told "The New York Times" that “we discussed all the articles that we have a problem with, but we didn’t find any solution."

The most divisive issue remains whether the constitution will extend to Iraq’s majority Shi’a the right to autonomy within a federal system.

One of the largest Shi’a parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has insisted that Shi’a-majority areas of southern and central Iraq have the right to form a single, self-rule region.

That could provide the Shi’a with the kind of autonomy that currently exists in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq.

But Sunni parties have objected to Shi’a self-rule, arguing that it would divide the country. They worry that autonomous authorities in both the north and south could hoard Iraq’s oil wealth and leave the Sunni center -- which has no oil fields -- impoverished.

Another outstanding issue is whether the constitution should ban any remnants or symbols of the Ba'ath Party, which was dominated by Sunnis under Saddam. Sunni negotiators are said to worry that could lead to exclusion of Sunnis from future top government posts.

With no signs of breakthroughs, some Shi’a negotiators say they are now ready to use their dominant position in the National Assembly to bypass the Sunnis.

However, it is unclear how unified the Shi’a representatives are in insisting on the right to autonomy. Some prominent Shi’a members of the government have also warned it could divide Iraq.

In recent hours, predicting what happens next has grown still more difficult as National Assembly speaker al-Hassani has said it is not necessary for the body to vote to approve the draft charter.

Instead, al-Hassani said the constitution text currently backed by Shi’a and Kurdish lawmakers could be passed directly to Iraqi voters to decide in the 15 October referendum.

The fact that the National Assembly accepted the draft document on 22 August without sending it back to the drafting committee is seen by some Iraqi politicians as constituting approval pending minor changes.

But the question of procedural issues has grown yet more complicated, as some Sunni politicians now argue that the current National Assembly has already forfeited its right to guide the constitutional process.

They say that happened when the assembly missed the deadline for approving the constitution without formally setting a new one.

Under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the government is to be dissolved and new National Assembly elections held if a deadline to complete the constitution is missed or the TAL is not amended to extend the timeline.

Some Sunni leaders have said that if a draft constitution is approved by the National Assembly without their support, they will work to defeat it in the October referendum. The draft constitution can be rejected if a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq’s provinces vote against it.

Any such rejection would derail the timeline of U.S. and Iraqi officials for holding a nationwide election for a constitutional government by the end of the year. That election is seen as essential for weakening the ongoing insurgency in the country.