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Iraq: Murders Hurt Efforts To Enlist Sunnis In Politics

National Assembly speaker al-Hassani called the killings an attempt to incite sectarian violence Efforts to bring Sunni Muslims into Iraq's political process appear to have suffered a blow following the assassination yesterday of two Sunnis who were involved in drafting the country's future constitution as well as a Sunni politician. In the wake of the killings, reports say several Sunni Arab members of the committee drafting the constitution have dropped out. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the three murders, which came after Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric warned that a "genocidal war" is threatening Iraq.

Prague, 20 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sheikh Mijbal al-Sheikh Issa and Thamir Husayn al-Ubaydi, Sunni members of the committee drafting Iraq's new constitution, were gunned down yesterday as they left a restaurant in central Baghdad.

Aziz Ibrahim Ilaywi, an informal advisor to the committee, was also killed in the shooting.

The killings appear to have been a blow to efforts to get Sunni Muslims involved in Iraq's political process. Today, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Dialogue, a Sunni Arab umbrella group, told Reuters that four of its members on the constitutional drafting committee had suspended their membership.

Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG). He tells RFE/RL that the killings were probably committed by opponents of Iraq' political process.

"I think it is an attempt to make good on previous threats against any Sunni Arabs have said they are willing to join the political process. This is probably done by those who oppose the political transition and who want to sabotage it and they are from the insurgent corner who refuse any kind of political deal and Mijbal Sheikh Issa -- the man who was assassinated -- is one of those; he was a member of the National Dialogue Council who were agreeing to join the political process, who had many disagreements with other political parties with the Shi'as and the Kurds but were willing at least to engage in dialogue," Hiltermann said.

Last month, the committee drafting Iraq's constitution was expanded to include 15 Sunnis in response to the Sunni minority's demands for greater representation. Issa, a Sunni lawyer, was one of them. In an 18 July interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, Issa expressed support for creating more constituencies.

"I wish the system of more constituencies is more widely introduced so that every governorate, not only Baghdad, becomes two constituencies. The reason is that some kind of demographic or social change has happened between various groups of the population. For instance, in Kirkuk, there are Sunni Arabs, Turkomans, Kurds, and Christians," Issa said. "It is possible that all of them enter a different constituency, or it is possible that we give a certain extent of freedom to the citizen so that he or she knows whom to choose in the elections. It is true that we are in the framework of a newly established system but the open system [of a single constituency] would lead to more problems for which we have no mechanisms [of resolving]. In any case, I believe that the system of one constituency has failed and that religious and racist attitudes become apparent in the system of one constituency while they would not appear in the system of more constituencies."

Iraqi National Assembly speaker Hajim al-Hassani said yesterday that the assassination of the Sunni members of the constitutional committee is an attempt to incite sectarian violence. He said terrorists are seeking to divide Iraqis and create divisions among the country's ethnic groups. The attack was condemned by the Iraqi government and by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

On 18 July, Iraq's top Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called the slaughter of civilians by suicide bombers and gunmen a "genocidal war." Al-Sistani has called for restraint and told his supporters not to retaliate to killings of Shi'as.

Last week, in two separate suicide attacks, more than 15 children were killed in Baghdad and some 90 people in Musayyib, south of the Iraqi capital. Many of those who died were Shi'a on their way to a mosque for prayers when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near a gas tanker.

Some observers warned that Iraq could descend into a civil war if the bloodshed is not stemmed.

Hiltermann acknowledges the possibility of a civil war. But he says he believes that it can be prevented if the political process and the drafting of the constitution -- due to be completed by 15 August -- succeed.

"But that's a big 'if' because there are many problems with it; at the moment it looks like the drafters of the constitution may finish their job on time but it was done in such a rushed fashion we end up probably more with a skeleton constitution than one that really addresses some of the key concerns and works them out," Hiltermann said. "So it merely defers the difficult decision that various communities in Iraq have to reach, and as long as these methods are not settled properly, then those who do want civil war to happen in Iraq will succeed in continuing to carry out attacks that are clearly intended to jumpstart civil war."

The murders yesterday came a few hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the drafting of the constitution could be completed by the end of this month, provided Sunni concerns can be addressed quickly.

Sunni members of the drafting committee reportedly will hold a meeting tomorrow to make a final decision on whether to continue serving.

Related Story:

Sunnis Drafting Constitution Gunned Down In Iraq
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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