Iraqi parliament approves compromise deal on constitution
Thursday, October 13, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi lawmakers approved a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote on Wednesday, sealing a compromise designed to win Sunni support and boost chances for the charter's approval in a referendum just three days away.
The deal, brokered with intense U.S. mediation, came as insurgents pressed their campaign to wreck Saturday's referendum. A suicide bomber killed 30 Iraqis at an army recruitment center in a northern town where another bomber had struck just a day earlier.
At least one major Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said it will now support the draft at the polls. But some other Sunni parties rejected the amendments and said they would still campaign for a "no" vote.
Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also weighed in, ordering Shiites to vote "yes" in the referendum, one of his aides, Faisal Thbub, said. It was the most direct show of support for the charter by al-Sistani, whose call brought out huge numbers of voters to back Shiite parties in January elections.
The most significant change is the introduction of a mechanism allowing Sunni Arabs to try to make more substantive changes in the constitution later, after a new parliament is elected in December.
Sunnis want to weaken the considerable autonomous powers the Shiite and Kurdish mini-states would have under the constitution. But there's no guarantee they will succeed: They will still likely face strong opposition from majority Shiites and Kurds in the new parliament.
The amendments passed Wednesday also made some key symbolic concessions to Sunni Arabs, starting with the first article underlining that Iraq will be a single nation with its unity guaranteed -- a nod to fears among the disaffected minority that the draft as it stood would fragment the country.
That was not enough, however, for many Sunni leaders.
"The added articles do not change anything and provide no guarantees," Muthana Harith al-Dhari, spokesman of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, told Al-Jazeera television.
"We have called for boycotting the elections or rejecting the constitution," he said.
Still, the changes will likely split the Sunni vote enough to prevent them from defeating the draft constitution. The draft will be rejected if more than two thirds of the voters oppose it in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces, and Sunnis have the potential to do so in just four.
The charter's passage is a key goal of the United States, since failure would mean months more political instability and would delay U.S. plans to start pulling troops out of Iraq.
Sunni Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said the amendments meant Sunnis had to work harder in the December parliamentary elections to ensure a strong presence in the next parliament to try for future, deeper changes in the constitution.
They have only 17 members in the current 275-member parliament after largely boycotting Jan. 30 elections.
"This is the best we have. We have to be practical," al-Yawer said. "This has opened the door for major amendments of the constitution. This will happen through participating in the elections. The more turnout there is, the more chances there are for amendments."
Iraq's top leaders, including the Kurdish president and Shiite prime minister, lined up on stage before the gathered lawmakers in parliament, lauding the deal as a show of unity between the country's often divided factions and communities.
"We have the right to be proud in saying that today was a day of national consensus," President Jalal Talabani said. "So congratulations to our people for their constitution."
The hour-long session, attended by 159 of parliament's 275 members -- ended without the lawmakers voting on the amendments, but Parliament Speaker Hajim al-Hassani said no actual vote was necessary and that the compromise was approved.
The deal had already been accepted by the main parties in parliament after it was reached Tuesday night following three days of marathon negotiations, shepherded by U.S. officials. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad attended Wednesday's parliament session.
Washington welcomed the compromise as a positive step. "We believe the political process should be inclusive," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But McClellan added that the Bush administration expected to see "continued violence because the terrorists understand how high the stakes are in Iraq."
Under one of the main changes introduced Wednesday, the upcoming parliament will form a committee that will have four months to recommend new amendments. These amendments must be all approved by parliament, but by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority that would normally be required. They would then go to a national referendum.
That gives the Sunnis a window to bring about the deeper changes they want. They fear that the powers given to the Shiite and Kurdish mini-states will leave them in an impoverished central zones, without access to oil wealth concentrated in the north and south.
But there is no guarantee they will succeed in winning the future amendments. Their proposed amendments would still have to get through Shiite-Kurdish resistance in parliament. Then they can be defeated in the popular referendum that follows if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "no."
Another significant amendment assures Sunni Arabs that they will not be purged in Iraq's De-Baathification program simply for belonging to Saddam's ousted Baath Party. Many current Sunni Arab political leaders were Baath members and insist only those who actually committed crimes should be prosecuted.
Others emphasize the country's links to the Arab world over those to the Islamic world -- a concern of Sunnis who see Iraq's Shiite majority as drawn to neighboring Shiite-majority Iran -- and reinforce the use of the Arabic language in Kurdistan, the autonomous zone of the non-Arab Kurds.
Still others -- such a new article committing the government to promote sports -- were added at the suggestion of letters from the public.
At least 438 people have been killed in militant violence in the last 17 days as insurgents try to scare voters away from the polls Saturday.
On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, a suicide attacker hit the northwestern town of Tal Afar.
The bomber set off explosives hidden under his clothes at the first of two checkpoints outside the army recruiting center in Tal Afar, where men were gathering to apply for jobs, said army Capt. Raad Ahmed and town police chief Brig. Najim Abdullah. They said at least 30 people were killed and 35 wounded.
A day earlier, a suicide bomber killed 30 civilians and wounded 45 when he plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a crowded outdoor market in Tal Afar. Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for that attack.
In August, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a major offensive in Tal Afar, 93 miles east of the Syrian border, claiming to have killed 200 insurgents and driven many others out.
Also Wednesday, the military announced that two U.S. soldiers died and one was injured when their vehicle rolled over while on patrol during combat near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
The crash brought to 1,962 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.