Can Shiites appease Sunnis before vote?

Iraq's constitutional debate has swirled for months around one central issue: trying to find a way to convince Sunnis that the political process is in their interest and undercut support for Iraq's raging insurgency.

Wednesday, Iraq's powerful Kurdish and Shiite politicians said they reached an agreement to alter the charter - to increase Sunni support of the document - ahead of Saturday's constitutional referendum.

But now it looks unlikely that they will legally be able to make the amendments by this weekend's vote. The interim parliament, which would have to approve the amendments, is on recess for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and local politicians say they don't think a quorum can be achieved to ratify the changes.

The changes themselves are relatively minor, says Saad Jawad Qandeel, head of the political bureau for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the two Shiite Islamist parties who control the government.

Rather than changing the constitution in fundamental ways, he says the last-minute adjustments amount to "additional wordings that confirm what's already there ... there isn't time to make fundamental changes."

He says these include assurances that former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party will be treated equally to other citizens if not guilty of any crimes during his regime; that a sentence will be added emphasizing "Iraq's unity;" and that a clarification will be made underscoring that Arabic should be used in Kurdistan.

Most significantly, he says, the proposed changes promised a special committee to consider and propose amendments to the new constitution. The committee would meet after parliamentary elections in December.

Mr. Qandeel said that the amendmentrules already in the draft constitution wouldn't be changed, and were more a gesture to Sunni Arabs. "It's in the way of assurance to the Sunni Arab parties that we are flexible enough to consider changes in due course."

As limited as the changes are, they are enough to win the support of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni groups, says two party officials. "But our support for the constitution depends on the changes being officially ratified by parliament,'' says party official Naser al-Any. "If they aren't, then we will continue to urge a no vote."

To be sure, Iraq's interim laws haven't stood in the way of technically illegal decisions on the constitution in the past, and Kurdish and Shiite leaders may still declare the amendments part of the charter, even if a quorum can't be reached.

However, the main issue that has left most Sunnis angry about the constitution - a federalism they fear could lead to the eventual breakup of Iraq - has not been addressed, and the Sunni Arab community at large remains unlikely to support the document.

Usama Redha contributed to this report.

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