Iraqis race to finish constitution

For Iraq's constitution writers, meeting their Aug. 15 deadline has become a hedge against a broader civil war.

In the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, Iraqi politicians are working overtime to put together a permanent constitution that can eventually guide the country to a peaceful future.

Keeping the political process on track is the only way to keep an edge vis-à-vis the insurgency, Iraqi and US officials say. And sticking to the schedule, increasingly, looks to be the key to preventing full-scale civil war.

Finding a sectarian compromise appears especially urgent amid a spike in suicide bombings over the past week, including Saturday's attack at a gas station next to a Shiite mosque in Musayib, south of Baghdad, which killed more than 90.

At each critical juncture in the political process, the Sunni-dominated insurgency is under pressure to prove its continued relevance, US officials argue.

However, the main factions on the drafting committee - Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis - say they agree on the rough shape of the constitution. They are now working "day and night" to hammer out a mutually acceptable draft by Aug. 15, the deadline for parliament to approve the document prior to a nationwide referendum to be held by Oct. 15.

"If you look at the path we were meant to be on, we're still on it," a Western diplomat in Baghdad says, despite the three months taken to form a government after Jan. 30 elections, and further weeks lost in figuring out how to include the underrepresented Sunnis in the next step. "Various groups, for their own reasons, are keen to stick to the timetable" on the permanent constitution, he adds.

The US-drafted Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which is Iraq's current provisional constitution, allows the drafting committee to take up to six extra months, if necessary, before the current government's term expires. Yet the longer the draft is delayed, the greater the risk of losing momentum. Iraq's second parliamentary elections, scheduled for Dec. 15, might be held off until well into 2006.

"We are a society in crisis. Everybody is worried about the possibility of civil war," says Sunni parliamentarian Adnan al-Janabi, elected on the ticket of Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister. "If we keep to the schedule, not many people can find an excuse for opting out or resorting to violence."

Unnecessary delays, however, would "open a Pandora's box of doubts" about Iraq's long-term viability as a nation, he says.

Except for the Sunni insurgent fringe, every faction appears eager to move forward to the constitutional referendum and the next elections. For many Sunnis, the elections appear to hold greater importance, as an opportunity to achieve genuine representation at a national level.

The General Conference of Sunnis, a loose-knit group of clerics and politicians, urged Iraq's Sunnis to register to vote to claim their rightful share in decisionmaking. Sunnis - the sect that held sway before the US-led invasion in 2003 - have been hindered, unlike the Kurds and Shiites, by their inability to agree among themselves on major national issues. Shiite parties, in contrast, are reaching out to their supporters for input on constitutional issues. More than 1,000 Shiite women recently gathered to discuss the role they want in the future Iraq.

According to some members, the committee has already reached a consensus on the role of religion in the state. Rather than insisting on Islam as a "source" of legislation, the country's top Shiite clerics have said they would accept the line that "no law may contradict Islam."

Kurdish parties, with deep-rooted secular traditions, however, say they will accept this only with an added guarantee that no law will contradict human rights, democracy, or individual liberty, as is found in the TAL. Much of the draft is likely to echo the original US document, which US officials say the Iraqis "keep going back to" whenever talks look almost ready to break down.

But everyone agrees that one major issue is still far from solved: How to define "federalism" as the structure for governing the country.

While the Kurdish autonomy in the north is assured, the leading Shiite parties, with a strong base of voters in southern Iraq, want to see federalism applied the same way across the country, in part to keep southern Iraq's oil revenues in Shiite hands. Sunni members, such as Mr. Janabi, say they can accept special status for the Kurds, but not the "splintering of Iraq."

Rather than empowering provincial or regional governments, some Sunni members would like to see national parliamentary seats tied to provinces. This way, the Sunni triangle would get its fair share of seats, even if insurgents once again terrorized voters into staying home on Election Day.

The Kurdish-Shiite divide over federalism also raises another potentially explosive question: What will become of Kirkuk? The Kurds hope to add the oil-rich northern city, which they claim as their historic capital, to their autonomous self-government zone.

But at this point, neither side wants to bring up Kirkuk.

"Nobody thinks it'll be resolved, so it's not a big deal," the Western diplomat asserts. In his view, this poses no threat to the critical constitutional draft. "A constitution doesn't have to solve every issue. It just has to set up mechanisms so issues can be addressed."

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