Iraqi leaders confer on charter
As deadline nears on constitution, breaking impasse gains urgency
Chicago Tribune | August 8, 2005
By Liz Sly
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's top leaders gathered Sunday at the heavily guarded villa of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani for the first of a series of high-level meetings aimed at breaking the deadlock holding up agreement on a new constitution.
As the meeting got under way, the U.S. military announced the deaths of three more of its troops in bomb attacks over the weekend: two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in Samarra on Saturday and a Marine killed in a suicide bombing in the western province of Anbar, also on Saturday.
The deaths brought to 30 the number of Americans killed this month in what is turning into one of the bloodiest periods for the military since the March 2003 invasion.
There was also an eruption of anti-government unrest in the normally quiet southern town of Samawah, underscoring the urgency of moving ahead with the political process.
Clash in southern Shiite town
Police killed at least one protester and wounded several, local TV reports from Samawah said, after about 1,000 demonstrators hurled stones at the provincial government building and set a police car on fire to protest the local government's failure to deliver basic services.
The unrest in Samawah, whose majority Shiite population voted overwhelmingly for the government in January, coincides with frustrations among many Iraqis over the failure of their new government to deliver promised improvements in living standards.
With eight days left before the Aug. 15 deadline for completing the constitution, U.S. officials are hoping that bringing together leaders of the main factions will spur compromises on issues that are required if the document is to be finished on time.
After greeting the leaders, who arrived at his home in a parade of armored vehicles, Talabani told reporters he was confident there is time to reach agreement.
"Eight days is not a little time. Multiply that by 24 hours a day and you will see that . . . it's enough to reach agreement," he said.
Among those converging at Talabani's riverside villa, once inhabited by Saddam Hussein's half brother Barzan, were former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the heads of several smaller parties in the National Assembly.
Two days already have been lost; the meeting was set for Friday but was delayed to enable the head of the Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barzani, to attend.
Barzani did not attend Sunday's meeting after a rare summer dust storm prevented his helicopter from reaching Baghdad. Kurdish officials said he was expected in Baghdad on Monday. Barzani's presence is considered crucial because, as president of the virtually autonomous region of Kurdistan, his assent will be essential if any compromises are to be made that affect the Kurdish region.
The constitution would be nullified in the referendum in October if it is rejected by a majority of voters overall, or by two-thirds of voters in any three provinces. It is likely that three provinces constituting the Kurdish region would vote down any document that doesn't ensure their autonomy, Kurdish officials say.
Addressing an emergency session of the Kurdistan parliament Saturday, Barzani assured legislators that the constitution also would have to be ratified first by the Kurdish legislature before it could become law in Kurdistan.
The question of regional autonomy and the extent to which Iraq will be a federal state is the sticking point holding up an agreement among the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni factions negotiating the document, with the Kurds insisting on strong guarantees that their autonomy will be preserved.
Kurds want Kirkuk, oil fields
They also are seeking the incorporation of the disputed town of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields into Kurdistan, something strongly opposed by Sunni Arabs.
Sunni leaders were not invited to Sunday's gathering. Talabani said the meeting was intended for those represented in Iraq's National Assembly and that he would host a separate meeting for those who are not represented Monday.
After many Sunnis boycotted January's election, Sunni groups have no representation in the assembly, but they have been invited to participate in the constitutional talks in a bid to ensure that the new constitution wins the acceptance of the Sunni community, to which most members of the insurgency belong.
Talabani said he hoped to bring all the leaders together later in the week to finalize whatever agreement is worked out at the talks.
Elsewhere in Iraq, at least 12 people were reported killed in insurgent attacks, including seven Iraqi soldiers killed in a suicide bombing in Tikrit.