Iraqi leaders enter final talks on constitution
Times Online | August 22, 2005
By Catherine Philp and Ali Hamdani
Iraq's leaders are meeting this afternoon in Baghdad with the deadline to agree the country's new constitution only hours away.
Significant differences, on issues ranging from oil to women's rights and the extent of regional autonomy, are thought remain between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish contingents of the constitution's drafting committee, which has until midnight to submit a document to the National Assembly.
If the committee fails to submit a draft constitution, then parliament can vote to give it more time - or dissolve ahead of new elections.
This morning, members of the committee met for three hours and expressed varying degrees of optimism, intransigence and hope as the deadline - already extended from last week - approached.
A Shia television station quoted Iraq's Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi saying that there had been "major breakthroughs", but several members of the drafting committee said that a number of obstacles remain to be overcome, including the role of Islamic law and women in the future of Iraq.
A Kurdish member of the drafting committee, Abdul-Khaleq Zangana, said that "the role of religion and women’s rights" were the main stumbling blocks. He predicted that the talks would fail, leading to "either an extension - and this is not good - or parliament dissolves - and this is difficult".
Worrying signs of disagreement between Shia and Kurdish members of the drafting committee have also emerged. Until recently, the main source of tension on the committee have been its Sunni members, who complain that they have been sidelined from the drafting process.
Yesterday, for example, Sunni delegates appealed to the United States and United Nations to prevent Shias and Kurds from pushing a draft through parliament without their consent, warning it would only worsen the crisis in Iraq.
But today, a Shia leader, Mohammed Baqir al-Bahadli, suggested that Kurdish representatives are objecting to the prominence of the Shia interpretation of Islam in the constitution. According to al-Bahadli, Kurdish leaders have insisted that any Islamic law in the constitution is open to interpretation to all Islamic sects.
Even if the drafting committee does manage to agree a finished constitution tonight, there are signs that the Iraq's Sunni Arabs are organising to vote it down when it is presented to the country in a referendum in October.
Sunnis widely boycotted January’s elections, which formed the drafting committee and Iraq's transitional government, but are now registering in their thousands as part of a concerted "no" campaign by local leaders, clerics and sheikhs.
The boycott of January’s elections is now widely seen as a mistake that left the Sunni minority, from whom the insurgency is drawn, without political representation.
When Iraq’s leaders came to form a committee to write the constitution, they were forced to draft in unelected Sunni representatives for fear that excluding them would further exacerbate tensions. But as the constitutional drafting process has dragged on, ordinary Sunnis have grown disillusioned and begun laying plans to wreck the charter, whatever it contains.
To do so, Sunnis would have to persuade two thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq’s 18 provinces to vote "no". Although they represent only 20 per cent of Iraq’s population, they could muster such a majority in four provinces, giving them the power to make or break the charter.
The registration drive is putting Sunnis in direct conflict with insurgents. Three members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party were killed in a square in Mosul after being caught putting up voter registration posters. A day earlier in Ramadi, Sunni leaders came under fire as they entered a mosque for a meeting on the subject.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were intended to scare Sunnis away from voting on "the devil’s constitution".