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All Sides Weigh Losses, Gains in Iraqi Constitution

Times Staff Writer

Key players trying to hammer out a new constitution for Iraq’s 25 million people are heading toward a second deadline Monday under the skeptical gaze of a battered nation and the rest of the world. With a breakthrough still in doubt, each side is facing delicate calculations over what would constitute success -- and failure.

Talks continued Saturday, with mid-level representatives of the various factions holding consultations, said Saedi Barzinji, a Kurdish member of the parliamentary constitutional committee. But there was little indication that participants were much closer to an agreement than they were last Monday, when they extended the deadline for completing the document by a week.

Still in play are crucial issues, including the balance of power between the central government and the regions, the role of Islamic law and control over Iraq’s oil wealth.

“If things continue like this, it will bring us back to the starting point,” said senior Shiite Muslim negotiator Jawad Maliki, “and time is running out.”

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Barring an agreement, negotiators Monday will face four choices: request another extension; approve a watered-down document that defers the hard questions; dissolve parliament and start again with a new election; or approve a constitution without consensus, probably a Kurd-Shiite power play to force through a decentralized system over the objections of Sunni Arabs.

Each holds risks and opportunities for the major Iraqi groups and the U.S. government, which has made no secret of its desire for a deal. Sunnis, for instance, would gain the most from a deadlock, while Shiites would stand to lose. The Bush administration, seeking to blunt Iraq’s bloody insurgency, needs a deal that includes Sunnis, who form its core.

A finished constitution would be put to a national referendum Oct. 15, and approval of the charter would pave the way for the election of a new legislature in December.

“We have a lot at stake, I’m not going to be shy about that. We want Iraq to succeed. A lot of American treasure and blood has been spent here,” said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

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Despite their inclusion in the process of government, albeit through U.S. pressure, Sunni Arabs complain that Kurds and Shiites are freezing them out of the real decision-making.

Sunnis, who ruled the country by force for decades, largely boycotted the Jan. 30 election. Now they are seeking to preserve a strong central Baghdad government, something the Shiites and Kurds seem determined to end. Decentralization, they argue, would be the first step toward Iraq’s gradual breakup. A constitution that skirted or deferred the division of power between the center and Iraq’s regions probably would be acceptable to them.

Failure to produce an agreement and an ensuing government collapse could benefit Sunni political groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, which boycotted the January election and found itself frozen out of the government. The 275-member parliament has only 17 Sunni Arab representatives, and many of them were elected on the slate of the Shiite-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

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If Sunnis participated more fully in a new election, they could elect a bloc of perhaps 40 legislators, enabling them to negotiate from a stronger position.

“For the Sunnis, it’s more numbers and more legitimacy,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project director for the International Crisis Group’s office in Amman, Jordan. “They get more representatives and the representatives will have more credibility.”

Alaa Makki, a political advisor to the Iraqi Islamic Party, acknowledged that new elections would be good for his party but might further damage the country’s frayed ethnic fabric.

“If we were represented [in parliament], we think things would go in a more balanced way. But we are just a small percentage of the Iraqi population. The Iraqi population will believe that something disastrous has occurred and they will fight,” Makki said.

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Still, Sunni representatives seem willing to take their chances on a new election before a constitution is approved. Barring that, they will fight any constitution that weakens the central government.

The constitution would fail if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces rejected it, and Sunni Arab leaders are already pushing voter registration efforts to prepare for the battle. They express confidence in their ability to spike an unacceptable document.

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Maliki and his fellow Shiite negotiator Hussein Shahristani doubt that the Sunnis could veto a constitution.

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Shiite politicians have pushed hard to establish a semi-independent southern state that would contain half of Iraq’s provinces and most of its oil. But that demand represents a considerable gamble on many fronts -- as the leading bloc in the governing coalition, their credibility would suffer from continued delays, particularly if the government collapsed.

A stronger Sunni turnout in a new election could chip away some Shiite seats, but the larger beneficiary could be former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite waiting in the wings as de facto opposition leader. Allawi’s successor, Ibrahim Jafari, has proved no more adept at improving the lives of most Iraqis, and Allawi probably also would gain votes from centrist Shiites leery of efforts to institute purist Islamic law.

Overriding Sunni objections might be possible politically, but doing so risks alienating moderate Sunnis who might be willing to work with a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds. It risks further radicalizing some Sunnis, driving them closer to Iraq’s insurgents.

Yet compromising on the demand for regional power carries its own risks for Shiite politicians. After turning the issue into a major negotiating point, politicians risk the wrath of their own voters if they give it up now.

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Kurds, like Shiites, are reveling in their newfound ascendancy after decades of oppression by Arab, Turkish and Iranian governments. For many, the ultimate goal remains the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Their hand may never be stronger than it is now, and Kurdish negotiators are under pressure from their populace to bargain hard.

In the short term, Kurdish politicians acknowledge that they’re better off as part of Iraq, where they enjoy a central position in the government and control of several ministries. They are seeking to formalize the autonomy of their three northern provinces and lay the groundwork for eventual control of Al Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital. The disputed oil center lies just outside of Kurdish territory and is regarded by Kurds as both a birthright and the key to future independence.

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Sunni Arabs and Shiites question the Kurds’ commitment to a unified Iraq and both reject the Kurds’ demand to hold a referendum on secession in eight years.

“I think [Kurdish citizens] are willing to give Iraq a last chance to evolve toward a genuinely federal democratic nation,” said Barham Salih, the planning minister and a top Kurdish negotiator. “History demonstrates that this country can go wrong too often.”

A dissolution of the government wouldn’t damage the credibility of Kurdish leaders as much as that of their Shiite counterparts. But too many compromises or deferrals could provoke a backlash among Kurdish voters against the established parties of rival leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani.

Their long-standing, at times violent, rivalry discourages compromise; each camp fears being undercut by the other and accused of selling out the Kurdish dream.

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For the Bush administration, the cost -- more than 1,860 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars -- must be justified by a successful, stable Iraqi government. It needs an agreement on a constitution that does not alienate Sunnis.

With little or no progress in quelling the insurgency, reviving Iraq’s economy or rebuilding its infrastructure, Washington has held up the political process as a key test for the nation’s prospects.

Iraqi politicians joke that Iraq’s constitution seems more important to the Americans than to the Iraqis. Khalilzad was so deeply involved in negotiations Friday that he first delayed, then canceled a scheduled conference call with reporters in Washington.

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The last-minute decision by Iraqi negotiators to grant themselves an extra week was an embarrassment for the Bush administration. But officials swiftly shifted, praising the negotiators’ dedication and commitment to a peaceful, legal solution.

Further delays would be even more uncomfortable, but not catastrophic, as long as they didn’t jeopardize the Oct. 15 vote.

“Technically you could have a constitution on Oct. 1 and still have a referendum,” Hiltermann said. But he warned that dragging out the process would shorten the period needed by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders to sell whatever compromises they’ve made to their people.

A constitution that doesn’t address the most contentious issues probably would be acceptable to Washington. The process would remain on schedule, administration officials could hail the landmark achievement, and intermediaries such as Khalilzad and United Nations representative Ashraf Jehangir Qazi would have more time to broker deals on the deferred matters.

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Passage by Shiites and Kurds of a constitution establishing a weak central government and strong regions could be a worst-case scenario for the Americans, who fear permanently marginalizing a generation of Sunnis, further invigorating the insurgency and prolonging the U.S. military presence.

Hiltermann predicted that the Bush administration would push hard for an agreement, even a watered-down one, that Sunnis can accept.

The Americans, he said, “are very keen, finally, on having the Sunnis participate because they know it’s the only real way to end the insurgency.”

Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi, Edmund Sanders and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad and Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.

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