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Federalism Still An Obstacle For Iraqi Charter

Hajim al-Hassani (file photo) Washington, 23 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's dominant Shi'ite and Kurdish groups presented a draft constitution minutes before deadline, helping the parliament avoid dissolution.

But the speaker of the National Assembly, Hajim al-Hassani, declined to call a vote on the document, saying there would be three more days of talks.

He said the main disputes involved federalism, references to the Ba'ath Party in the constitution, and the division of powers between the president, the parliament, and the cabinet.

The draft proposed late on 22 August calls for changing Iraq from a centralized state into a federation of Kurds, Shi'a, and Sunni Arabs. But Sunni Arab leaders reject such an arrangement out of concern that it would deprive them of power and oil wealth. The 15 Sunni Arab members on the drafting committee issued a statement early on 23 August saying the committee did not honor an agreement for consensus.

Iraq's UN ambassador, Samir al-Sumaydai'i, a Sunni, told RFE/RL shortly after the latest extension that negotiators were still trying to reach as broad a consensus as possible.

"There is a serious attempt to have a stabilizing document, a document that is more or less universally accepted," al-Sumaydai'i said. "If there is dissatisfaction with the document, then this dissatisfaction should be equally distributed, if you see what I mean."

Lawmakers had earlier extended the deadline for the draft by one week in the hope of bridging differences over federalism, the role of Islam, and control of oil revenues.

News agency reports said the draft document described Iraq as a "republican, parliamentarian, democratic, and federal" state. In a gesture to Sunnis, the Shi'ite and Kurdish factions agreed that natural resources would be controlled jointly by central and local government.

In another compromise, religious parties agreed that the draft refer to Islam as "a major source" of legislation, not "the" major source of Iraq's legal code. According to the draft, no law may contradict Islamic and democratic standards or "the essential rights and freedoms mentioned in this constitution."

Jonathan Morrow, an adviser to the drafting committee from the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent body created by the U.S. Congress, told RFE/RL that Sunni Arab officials have accepted Kurdish demands on federalism but they feel threatened by the new proposal for a southern autonomous Shi'ite region.

Morrow recommended that the committee in the next three days fully open the constitutional talks to Sunni representatives as well as many other sectors of society. "It will be no easy task for this constitution to meet with popular support at the referendum," he said. "I think that it would be both right and the wise thing to do for this draft to be presented to the public for their understanding and scrutiny because, after all, that is where the true test of the constitution lies -- if it's understood and lives in the heart of the people."

The assembly must approve the draft charter before it goes to a national referendum due in mid-October.

U.S. President George W. Bush on 22 August praised the political process under way in Iraq and stressed compromises will need to be made.

"The establishment of a democratic constitution will be a landmark event in the history of Iraq and the history of the Middle East," Bush said. "All of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups are working together on this vital project. All made the courageous choice to join the political process. And together they will produce a constitution that reflects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people."

In a speech to a U.S. veterans group, Bush reaffirmed that the U.S. military commitment in Iraq was central to the war against Islamic extremists.

For more on the debate over the Iraqi constitution, see Government Spokesman and Drafting Committee Members Discuss Constitution Negotiations and Iraq: Draft Constitution Due Today, But No Certainty It Is Ready