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Iraqis Barely Hit Deadline

Times Staff Writers

Shiite and Kurdish politicians beat a midnight deadline Monday and submitted a draft constitution to Iraq’s National Assembly, but lawmakers postponed voting on the document for three days in a final bid to gain the support of skeptical Sunni Arab leaders.

After months of negotiations and a one-week extension, lawmakers had been expected to either approve a draft constitution by Monday, officially endorse another delay or scrap the whole process and start over with new elections. Instead, visibly tired politicians muddled through to a half-resolution, presenting a document that left several key issues unsettled.

People who have viewed the document said it includes vague language weakening Iraq’s strong central government, enshrining a federalist system, and addressing how oil revenue is to be split between Baghdad and the provinces.

The text calls for such liberties as freedom of expression and the press. It gives Islam a role in national affairs, while offering Iraqis the option of following civil code in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

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But the drafting committee left it up to the transitional National Assembly to sort out issues including specifics on regional rights, the language of the preamble, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party members from government, and the exact role of the presidency, officials said.

“We want a good, solid constitution,” said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister and a Kurd. “We don’t want to force a deal on any group that they’re uncomfortable with.”

Sunni Arab members of the drafting committee quickly rejected the Shiite-Kurd text, loudly denounced the process and threatened to work against the document if the assembly endorsed the current version and submitted it to the public in an October referendum.

“This constitution is full of mines that are going to explode,” Saleh Mutlak, one of 15 Sunnis on the charter panel, told reporters. “The articles stipulated in this constitution will have grave consequences if they are submitted to a referendum. This constitution will lead to a weak Iraq that is unable to defend itself.”

Among other groups, though, news of the presentation of the draft was met with elation. State-controlled Al Iraqiya television broadcast raucous scenes of celebration on the streets of Najaf, the Shiite shrine city south of Baghdad that is the political and spiritual backbone of the Shiite-dominated government in the capital.

Men danced in the streets waving Kalashnikovs and Iraqi flags. Cars and trucks packed with jubilant passengers honked their horns and slowed traffic as men served sweets to revelers on the banks of the Euphrates River.

“We are so pleased by the issuing of the constitution, and we pray that God takes the hands of our respectable leaders,” an old man in a traditional Arab gown told a television reporter.

With Shiite Muslim and Kurdish politicians dominating the National Assembly, some of their constituents have been urging them to approve a constitution without backing from Sunni Arabs. But Iraqi and U.S. politicians have sought for months to include Sunnis in the process, arguing that doing so could help stanch the Sunni-led insurgency.

U.S. Embassy officials, heavily involved in pressing all sides to quickly come up with a deal palatable to Iraq’s disparate groups, huddled with Iraqi leaders until the final moments. Bush administration officials reacted to the fast-moving developments in Baghdad much as they did to last week’s delay: They praised Iraqi delegates for their courage and their efforts and described the move as a sign of progress.

Shortly after the three-day delay was announced, the White House issued a statement welcoming the draft constitution’s presentation to the assembly as “another step forward in Iraq’s constitutional process.”

“This is the essence of democracy, which is difficult and often slow, but leads to durable agreements, brokered by representatives that reflect the interests and values of free people,” the statement added.

In separate remarks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to the delay as “a statesmanlike decision,” needed to build what she called “the broadest national consensus.”

Shiite and Kurdish officials said the constitution was more than 90% finished -- something they have been saying for weeks. The draft constitution has elements sure to rankle and delight all Iraqis, said Barham Salih, planning minister and one of the chief constitutional negotiators.

“I cannot say that any group will be entirely excited with this constitution,” said Salih, a Kurdish leader.

It includes compromises on major issues of contention while leaving others to be worked out in future legislation.

On the divisive issue of women’s rights in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, the constitution would allow Iraqis to choose to have the matters heard in religious courts, or in federal courts run by judges.

On the role of religion in legislation, the draft constitution calls Islam “a main source” of legislation instead of “the main source,” as many conservative Shiites had demanded. But it would allow clerics to serve on the Supreme Court.

Politicians said a formula for distributing oil revenue had been worked out, though they disclosed few details.

Salih said the major Shiite, Kurdish and secular political parties had hammered out their differences, but balked at approving a constitution without the approval of Sunnis, who have a disproportionately small number of seats in the legislature because they largely stayed away from January’s National Assembly election.

“Between the Shiite list, the Kurdish list and [secular former Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi’s list, we could literally go and get 90% in parliament,” he said. “But we don’t want to play it that way. We want to reach out to the Sunnis and bring them on board.”

Though they make up about 20% of Iraq’s population, Sunni Arabs dominated Iraqi political affairs for decades until the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in 2003. Now, they fear that weakening the central government and turning Iraq into a federation of states with substantial powers could lead to the disintegration of Iraq. Sunnis also disagree with a clause in the draft constitution that condemns the Baath Party’s abuses.

“We think de-Baathification and mentioning Saddam’s name in the constitution is not the proper thing to do,” said Hachim Hassani, speaker of the parliament. “We don’t need it.”

Although some analysts in Washington questioned whether Monday night’s maneuver by politicians adhered to the letter of the transitional law governing Iraq, several said the delay had brought the country back from the brink of possible disaster. A postponement, they contended, was far better for the United States than attempting to push through a draft over the objections of the Sunni minority.

James Dobbins, a Rand Corp. specialist who was President Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said that winning the support of the country’s three major population groups for the draft was the top political priority.

“To go ahead without this support would be a great mistake,” he said.

Wayne White, a former State Department Iraq specialist now at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, warned that pushing Sunni Arabs out of the process would impede American military objectives.

“The Shiites and Kurds have the vote to ignore a large number of the Sunni Arabs,” he said. “But that doesn’t make the insurgency go away.”

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Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Washington and Noam N. Levey and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and members of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.


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