Deadline long passed, Iraqis still wrangle over constitution

Weeks after the Aug. 15 deadline, Sunni concerns about the draft constitution are still being heard.

Even though a supposedly final version of Iraq's draft constitution was read aloud to the country's parliament more than two weeks ago, negotiations over many key provisions in the charter are still ongoing.

Sunni leaders met with Kurds last week in northern Iraq to write more changes into the charter almost a month after the Aug. 15 deadline and subsequent extensions.

The country's new charter was to be printed and distributed by now, giving Iraqis time to consider it ahead of an Oct. 15 referendum. But it's clear that the country remains far away from having a final version of its new constitution.

While breaking all the procedural rules, talks do signal that Sunni concerns over federalism, for one, are getting a full airing. A compromise could diminish Sunni objections to early versions of the document - which they vowed to defeat - that they complained weakened the state and gave too much autonomy to Shiites and Kurds.

Many political analysts have said all along that the key to undercutting the insurgency - which is largely made up of Sunni Iraqis - is to bring the Sunni minority into the political process in meaningful ways.

In Tal Afar, in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, US and Iraqi troops continued to fight insurgents Tuesday. The operation, in its fourth day, is an attempt to block funds and fighters from flowing across the border through Tal Afar. Iraqi forces said they killed 14 insurgents and arrested 35 Tuesday. Earlier this week, many of the insurgents melted away through a complex tunnel system once troops entered the city.

While Sunnis have returned to the negotiating table, it's far from clear if new talks will result in a constitution satisfactory enough to win all Sunnis over. Indeed, some Sunni leaders have already written off these latest talks.

Naseer al-Ani, a Sunni from the Iraqi Islamic Party and member of the constitutional committee who was in the meetings in northern Iraq, says they feel "40 percent" better because new talks have been opened. He even sensed the Kurds might be willing to delay any moves toward federalism.

But, he says, "I'm not very optimistic. I don't want to say that because I am in the process and I want it to continue."

The main issue at hand is again the Sunni demand that federalism not be included at all in the constitution but set aside to be decided by a future national assembly. But Shiites just as adamantly insist that federalism be explicitly protected in the constitution. All sides agree that federalism will extend at least to the Kurds so they can keep their semiautonomous region in the north. The question is whether federalism will also mean Shiites can form their own semiautonomous region in the south.

Hussein Shukur al-Falluji, a Sunni involved with the original constitution talks, suspects the Kurds are acting on orders by the US to hold the talks in an effort to weaken Sunni opposition ahead of next month's referendum. "The Americans say there is negotiations between the Sunnis and the Kurds to decrease the effect of [saying] no, in the referendum," Mr. Falluji says. "What we are really afraid of is the Americans will fake the referendum."

Even so, the 71-member constitutional committee that was thought to be done, is reconvening Wednesday to discuss issues from last week's meeting in northern Iraq. The Kurds are acting as mediators between the two groups but the question will be what the Shiites will be willing to accept.

Sunni negotiators want the preamble to the constitution to state that Iraq is part of the Arab as well as the Islamic nation. They say that would give Iraq's Sunni minority the clout of having the greater Arab world, dominated by Sunnis, behind them.

Even if Sunnis couldn't vote it down by mustering a "no" vote from 2/3 of the voters in three provinces, approving a constitution over strong Sunni objections would only further alienate a group the political process was meant to engage. Whether these talks can soothe the already hard feelings of the leaders remains to be seen.

"It will be more hazardous and worsen the situation here if the constitution will pass with items it contains now," says Mutlaq. "They are concerned about themselves, not us. They know they can't rule without us. But to see they are thinking to this extent, we are pleased."

With no deadlines or rules governing the process, no one knows if talks will finish before the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution, or if even that date might change. "I would rather see something change on the 15th of October [that would allow us all to] say yes," Mutlaq says.

Alan Enwia contributed to this report.

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