Political groups representing Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs called Sunday for new delays in approving a national constitution, complaining that they had been cut out of final-hour negotiations between Shiites and Kurds and appealing to U.S. and U.N. officials to intervene.
The nation’s transitional National Assembly is scheduled to approve a final draft of Iraq’s first democratic constitution today after missing the original deadline last Monday, when its members voted instead to give themselves one more week to seek compromise on key issues.
Shiite Muslims and Kurds, both long oppressed during Saddam Hussein’s regime by a strong central government dominated by Sunni Muslims, have written a draft that creates a federal system allowing for greater regional autonomy. Sunnis have staunchly opposed building federalism into the constitution, fearing it will lead to the fracturing of Iraq into separate countries. Several other issues remain unresolved, including the division of oil revenue and the role of Islamic law.
“We need more time to negotiate,” Sheik Abdel Nasser Janabi, a leading Sunni negotiator, said Sunday. “I see an attempt to exclude the Arab Sunnis.”
On Sunday, Shiites and Kurds appeared to be moving toward using their majority in the National Assembly to approve a draft of the constitution over Sunni objections. Though some Shiite negotiators were publicly expressing hope that they would achieve a consensus with Sunnis and meet today’s deadline, Sunni leaders complained that they had only been invited to one meeting during the last week.
“The meetings have not been serious ones, and time is running out,” Sunni negotiator Saleh Mutla said. “We do not want a constitution that is molded in the final moments and then thrust upon us to sign.”
In response, Sunnis and some disgruntled Shiites are threatening to take the fight to the polls and try to defeat the constitution when it is presented to Iraqi voters in an Oct. 15 referendum.
“Everyone is getting ready for a big battle,” said Hassan Bazzaz, political science professor at the University of Baghdad.
A source close to the talks who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of negotiations said that Shiite and Kurdish representatives had basically abandoned hopes of a three-way deal. The Sunni position, he said, is “directly contrary to what the others want.”
Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite, said Sunday that the document was 97% complete and predicted that it would be forwarded to the National Assembly in time for passage today, Associated Press reported.
Even between themselves, Kurds and Shiites need to agree on several difficult issues, chiefly related to how to divide Iraq’s oil wealth. Kurds seek to specify in the constitution how oil revenue will be divided between the national and local governments. Shiites prefer to leave such details out of the document, said Saad Jawad, a Shiite leader.
Last week’s vote also was delayed by debate over women’s rights and the degree to which Sharia, or Islamic law, would be imposed in Iraq.
If negotiators do not reach an agreement today, legislators can again approve a delay. The National Assembly will be disbanded, however, if it fails to approve a constitution to put before the voters. New parliamentary elections would be conducted by the end of the year, and the process of writing a charter would start anew -- a delay strongly opposed by the Bush administration.
In recent days, Sunni Arab groups have organized protest rallies in Fallouja, Ramadi and Baghdad, where thousands of Sunnis and their followers have chanted their opposition to any draft that does not take into account their concerns.
In Mosul, the Muslim Scholars Assn. is preparing a religious edict, or fatwa, that would order Sunni followers to vote “no” in the referendum if clerics determine that the final draft “violates Islamic fundamentals,” according to Othman Ali Khalid, attorney for the chapter.
Last week, representatives for Sunni groups met with a National Assembly coalition affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to discuss ways that they could jointly work to defeat the constitution.
“Our views on this issue are aligned,” said Auf Rahoomi Majid, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baqubah.
Both say they fear that the draft constitution will lead to the breakup of Iraq.
“We are preparing to lobby our people against the constitution,” said Fatah Sheik, a member of the National Assembly and former editor of a Sadr-leaning newspaper. “We would rather dissolve the National Assembly than pass a constitution that would dissolve Iraq.”
For weeks Sunni political parties and clerics have been urging their followers to register to vote in the referendum, a stark contrast to their approach to the Jan. 30 parliamentary election, which they encouraged supporters to boycott.
“We will go to each and every city to explain our view,” said Sheik Hassan Zeidan, one of the Sunni Arab negotiators.
Though Sunnis Arabs represent only about 20% of Iraq’s population, their veto threat is serious because a clause in the constitutional bylaws says the charter cannot be adopted if a two-thirds majority votes “no” in three of the nation’s 18 provinces.
A Shiite-Kurdish power play would represent a major setback for the U.S., which has lobbied for the inclusion of Sunnis and the drafting of a constitution acceptable to them. Along with developing capable Iraqi security forces, coaxing Sunni Arabs into the political process is the primary U.S. strategy for blunting the Sunni-fueled insurgency.
A strong Sunni Arab push to defeat the constitution is certain to further strain Iraq’s frayed ethnic fabric.
Hussein Shukir Faluji, a Sunni Arab consultant on the panel charged with drafting the constitution, warned that if Shiite and Kurd legislators tried to override Sunni concerns, “we will start a revolution.”
Times staff writer Noam N. Levey in Baghdad and special correspondents in Mosul and Baqubah contributed to this report.