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Iraq: Kurds Sponsor Talks With Sunni Arabs On Draft Constitution

A man walks past a poster promoting the Iraqi constitution The Iraqi Independent Election Commission confirmed on 8 September that a referendum on the draft constitution will take place on 15 October, Al-Sharqiyah television reported, citing an unidentified commission spokesman as saying that copies of the draft were being printed for distribution.

The announcement raises questions over the status of the draft. The National Assembly sent the document to referendum on 29 August, as some government officials, including President Jalal Talabani, claimed that negotiations were continuing with Sunni Arabs opposed to the draft.

Talabani told the media on 7 September that some final changes could be made to the draft, saying that Kurdish and Shi'ite negotiators were willing to meet Sunni demands but only on the condition that no new demands would be made. Sunni negotiator Salih al-Mutlaq and an unidentified United Nations official close to the negotiators both told "The New York Times" that they expected the final changes to be made to the draft during meetings in Kurdistan on 8 September.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari said on 7 September that he considered the draft ready, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. "I consider the constitution as good as completed, assuming there is good will on all sides," he said. "With the preparedness displayed by one group or another to make concessions, I am quite hopeful that we will work together with our [Sunni] brothers notwithstanding minor differences of views, which we can surmount. That is why I consider the constitution already completed. Within days, God willing, Iraq and the whole world will witness the birth of the constitution draft."

Kurdistan President Sponsors Talks

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani held talks this week with Sunni Arab leaders in an attempt to persuade them to accept the document, President Talabani told reporters on 7 September. Barzani "tried to explain to [Sunnis] that the constitution has its positive and promising sides, which even they acknowledge. Even if there were shortcomings, this does not justify boycotting the constitution or the process," RFI quoted Talabani as saying.

Regarding the Sunni demands, Talabani said: "The brothers in the United Iraqi Alliance showed much flexibility on many issues that [Sunnis] asked to be included [in the draft]. We [Kurds] were also receptive on other issues on the condition that they [Sunnis] are ready to support [the draft] and end their demands, because as soon as we positively respond to particular demands, they come up with more. Therefore, demands do not end, which indicates that some parties do not want understanding to prevail among Iraqis."

Meanwhile, Barzani told the Kurdistan National Assembly on 7 September that it would be a historic mistake to ignore the demands of Sunni Arabs in the draft, RFI reported. "When the Ba'ath Party came [to power], they drove Shi'ites along with Kurds away [from politics] and the situation deteriorated. If the previous experience is repeated now in another form, by removing [Arab] Sunnis, neglecting them, and violating their rights, that would mean that security and stability would not be established in Iraq," Barzani said.

The Sunni Position

RFI reported on 8 September that the Sunni Arab delegation to the talks in Kurdistan included Adnan al-Dulaymi, former head of the Sunni Al-Waqf (religious endowments) Office and spokesman for the Conference of Sunnis in Iraq; Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party; Sa'd al-Janabi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Republican Bloc; Khalaf al-Ulayyan, secretary-general of the National Dialogue Council; and dialogue council members Mahmud al-Mashhadani, Abd al-Nasir al-Janabi, and Hasan Ubaykan.

"We have arrived from Baghdad with our hearts filled with optimism that there is sufficient time, that there is flexibility, and that there is good understanding for what we are concerned with," al-Hashimi told reporters. "We hope that we will leave this hospitable city that has embraced us today carrying good news for all Iraqis." Al-Hashimi said, however, that Sunni delegates would not consider the constitution "official" until it is presented to the United Nations. "The draft will not be considered final and not even official until the National Assembly presents it to the United Nations. This draft has not been yet presented to the United Nations. The United Nations is legally responsible for printing the draft and distributing it among the Iraqi people. This has not happened up to now."

In describing the Sunni Arab position, Adnan al-Dulaymi listed among the critical issues "the unity of Iraq, and the preservation of this unity," "the refusal of federalism (forming regional governments) for southern and central areas [of Iraq]," and "confirming the right of our Kurdish brothers to establish their own [federal] region, with this region being a part of Iraq.
"We have arrived from Baghdad with our hearts filled with optimism that there is sufficient time, that there is flexibility, and that there is good understanding for what we are concerned with. We hope that we will leave this hospitable city that has embraced us today carrying good news for all Iraqis." -- Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party

"We reject sectarianism. We reject the partition of Iraq. We reject inciting any strife in Iraq," al-Dulaymi added in comments to reporters in Irbil. "We call for the liberation of Iraq, for the sovereignty of Iraq, and for the preservation of the [natural] resources of Iraq. We believe that these resources are the property of all Iraqis. These are the principles that we believe in. We will do our best so that they are incorporated in the constitution. An issue very important for us is the Arab-Islamic identity of Iraq. We will insist on incorporating an explicit clause on that in the constitution."

Although on the surface al-Dulaymi's statements imply a number of outstanding issues, if the published version of the draft ( is correct, the only outstanding issue appears to be federalism. The unity of Iraq is stressed in the preamble of the draft ("We are the people of Iraq, who in all our forms and groupings undertake to establish our union freely and by choice"), and there is no mention in the draft of self-determination for any group.

Identity Issues

As for the issue of acknowledging the Arab-Islamic identity of Iraq, President Talabani said on 7 September that an agreement was reached with the Arab League. Kurds had opposed the Arab reference on the grounds that they, as the second largest plurality in the country, are not Arabs.

According to Talabani, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa proposed -- and drafters accepted -- new text referring to Iraq's connection to the Arab world. Musa was quite vocal in his criticism to the draft last week, which provoked a sharp rebuttal from Iraqi government officials, who said that Iraq had no reason to elicit the support of the Arab League when Arab nations had done little to support Iraq over the past 2 1/2 years.

The draft also includes a number of articles addressing the distribution of Iraq's resources, which should satisfy Sunni demands. Article 104 calls for the establishment of a public commission made up of representatives from the regions, governorates, and federal government to monitor and allocate federal revenues, including the "fair distribution" of international grants, aid, and loans according to the needs of the governorates and regions.

Article 110 calls on the federal government to administer oil and gas extracted from current fields "in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and governorates on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution all over the country."

Shi'ite leaders will not bend on the issue of establishing regional governments. However, there is room for amendment of the draft constitution -- particularly the article that currently, and vaguely, states that one or more governorates can form a region. Sunni Arabs might be persuaded to support the draft if there were a limit on the number of governorates that could join a region, thereby preventing a feared Shi'ite federation that could be composed of up to nine governorates -- essentially all of central and southern Iraq.

As it stands, the draft leaves it to the next National Assembly to enact a law on the formation of regions (Article 115 states: "The Council of Representatives shall pass with a simple majority vote and in less than six months from its first session a law defining the executive procedures for the establishment of regions.) The article arguably works in favor of Sunni Arabs, who are expected to have greater representation in the next assembly.

Whatever the outcome of this week's negotiations, the process is moving forward, with only five weeks left until the referendum. To date, the public has yet to see an official draft of the constitution, which leaves little time for distribution and debate, as called for under the Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq's interim constitution.

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".

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