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Iraq: Writing Of Draft Constitution Ends Amid Disputes

Iraq's long process of writing its first post-Saddam draft constitution is over. The overdue document, originally planned to be completed on 15 August was presented to the National Assembly and read aloud in the chamber on 28 August. But even as the document was presented to the Shi'a-dominated assembly, many Sunni negotiators involved in the weeks of hard bargaining said their concerns were ignored and they will now work to get the draft constitution rejected in the planned mid-October referendum.

Prague, 29 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As he presented the draft constitution to the National Assembly on 28 August, Humam Hammudi, a Shi'a and the chairman of the drafting committee, struck an optimistic note.

"This constitution, to my thinking and the thinking of many of the members of the constitutional drafting committee, represents a very advanced experiment in the region -- a wonderful experiment for the Iraqi people," Hammudi said.

No Vote Taken

The National Assembly received the document, but took no vote on whether formally to accept it. Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law gives the National Assembly responsibility for the writing of the draft constitution, but does not explicitly require the body to approve it before putting it to a popular referendum no later than 15 October.

Iraqi interim President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, said he is optimistic all Iraqis will welcome the new charter in the referendum despite weeks of wrangling.

"I think the dialogue and discussions [surrounding the constitution] opened the way for strengthening the unity of the Iraqi people regardless of their ethnicity or religion or anything else," Talabani said.

But despite such welcoming statements, many questions remain about the draft constitution's future.

The most important is how deep is dissatisfaction with the draft among the Sunni parties -- which stayed away from Sunday's celebrations.

Sunni Concerns Still Outstanding

Ali al-Mushhadani, a Sunni adviser to the drafting committee, said on 28 August the document does not resolve Sunni objections.

"We were taken by surprise today by many parts of the text that affect the unity of the state in the future, and that affect the unity of the people, and that remove from the central authority many elements of power," al-Mushhadani said. "The upshot was that we had basic objections, starting even with the preamble [to the constitution] -- all of which makes me, as a legal professional, unable to sign such a text in good conscience, because I am worried about future criticism by the courts."

The stakes are high because any failure of the draft to pass the referendum would derail Washington and Baghdad's timeline for building a new democratic order.

Iraq is due to hold elections for a first constitutional government by the end of the year, and that poll is considered essential for weakening the insurgency.

U.S. President George W. Bush on 28 August acknowledged Sunni opposition to the Iraqi Constitution but urged Iraqis to vote in the referendum.

"There've been disagreements amongst the Iraqis about this particular constitution," Bush said. "Of course, there're disagreements. We're watching a political process unfold, a process that has encouraged debate and compromise, [about] a constitution that was written in a society in which people recognize there that had to be give and take.

The hours preceding the 28 August presentation of the draft constitution were filled with hard bargaining as Sunni and Shi'ite negotiators tried to bridge substantial remaining differences.

The reported language of the final draft appears to reflect some of those efforts.

Federalism Issues Unresolved

The document gives Iraqis the right to establish federal regions and recognizes the Kurdistan region, which currently has substantial autonomy. But it leaves to the next parliament the task of detailing the mechanisms by which other groups might implement the principle of federalism. The new parliament is due to be elected in mid-December.

That arrangement appears to be a response to strong Sunni objections to demands from some Shi'ite parties for an autonomous Shi'ite region. Sunni leaders say autonomy for both the Kurds and Shi'a could divide the country.

The draft constitution presented today also tries to address Sunni objections to earlier wording banning the Ba'ath party, which was dominated under deposed President Saddam Hussein by Sunnis.

Instead, the new language bans the "Sadaamist Ba'ath and its symbols," but stops short of using the words "Ba'ath party." That appears intended to shut former Ba'athists who were close to Saddam out of Iraq's political future but leave opportunities open for other people who were party members.

Importantly, the draft constitution terms Iraq a Muslim country but not an Arab one. That is despite the Sunni negotiators' insistence that Iraq be declared an Arab state.

Instead, the final language recognizes the fact Iraq is also home to Muslim but non-Arab Kurds and other minorities.

Many of the Sunnis who took part in the negotiations are now calling for their community to undo the document.

One, Saleh Mutlak, has called on Sunnis to reject the draft charter peacefully in the referendum. But he also predicts that "violence will go up, the hope among the people will go down."

Another Sunni negotiator, Sadoun al-Zubaydi, called boycotting the referendum a losing strategy for the Sunni. Instead, he says he hopes the next parliament "will be more balanced than this one."

Sunnis largely boycotted the election of the current National Assembly, assuring their under-representation in the body.

The critical comments from so many Sunni negotiators could foreshadow a bitter political battle as the country now counts down to the October referendum.

"It all depends how many of the Sunnis have been brought on board," Laith Kubba, the spokesman of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari, said. "If we have enough endorsements from the Sunnis, I think the 'no' vote is going to be weakened significantly. Our concern then will be about violence and intimidation. But if there was a bloc 'no' vote from the Sunnis, then that is problematic, because they can mobilize enough 'no-sayers' to stop this constitution."

Sunnis account for some 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people. But if they unite in opposition to the draft, they are in a strong position to overturn it.

Rejecting the document requires two-thirds of voters in any three provinces to vote against it. Sunnis make up a sizeable majority in two provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin, and a slim one in Nineveh, which also has a large Kurdish population.

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