Diplomats pressure Sunnis to accept a federal Iraq

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The Independent Online

President Jalal Talabani predicted that a draft constitution will be ready by tomorrow's deadline, and a Kurdish official said the draft would be presented to parliament with or without Sunni approval.

The final-stage negotiations took place against the backdrop of continuing violence, which the US hopes the new constitution can help bring to an end. Bombs and gunfights killed at least 12 people, and a US armoured vehicle was set ablaze in eastern Baghdad. There were no reports of US casualties.

Mr Talabani told reporters that last-minute talks were concentrating on whether to transform Iraq into a federated state ­ which the Sunnis oppose ­ and on the role of Islam.

"The meetings are still going on, and we have gone forward," Mr Talabani said. "There is a meeting today and another meeting tomorrow and, God willing, we will finish the job tomorrow" ­ one day ahead of the deadline for parliament to approve the charter.

Negotiations were thrown into a tailspin last Thursday when the leader of the biggest Shia party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called for a Shia autonomous government in central and southern Iraq, including the southern oilfields. That enraged Sunni Arab delegates, who fear federalism will lead to the disintegration of Iraq.

With time running out, the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the UN envoy, Ashraf Qazi, met separately with Sunni leaders, but failed to convince them to accept a federal system.

"We will not be subdued and will continue to cling to our stance," a Sunni negotiator, Kamal Hamdoun, said. "We don't accept federalism. We don't want federalism. We are confident that federalism means division and federalism cannot be approved at this time."

Mr Hamdoun said the Sunnis did not consider themselves bound by an agreement worked out between the Shias and Kurds. He said the Sunni Arabs were under "Iraqi and non-Iraqi pressure", but "we are not affected by pressure".

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian and member of the committee drafting the constitution, said the Shias and Kurds had reached a number of agreements and had had "high level discussions" so that "the Sunnis will agree". "If the Sunnis refuse to accept the agreements, we will present the draft as it is to the National Assembly," he said.

However, that strategy could backfire in the 15 October referendum, when voters will be asked to ratify the constitution. According to the country's interim charter, the constitution will be void if it is rejected by two-thirds of voters in three of the 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs are a majority in four.

Iraqi officials said Sunni Arabs would meetmembers of former prime minister Ayad Allawi's secular party today and that the Shias would confer with the Kurds. Mr Khalilzad was expected to attend both sessions.

Mr Othman said that the Kurds and the Shias had agreed that Islam would be recognised as the official religion "and there are discussions going on now regarding whether Islam will be the main source or a source of legislation in the constitution".

Many secular-minded Iraqi women fear a loss of their rights if Islam is designated as the main source of legislation.

In his weekly radio address, US President George Bush said that the Iraqi constitution "is a critical step on the path to Iraqi self-reliance".

American officials hope it could pave the way for the US and its international partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

"Despite the acts of violence by the enemies of freedom, Iraq's elected leaders are now finishing work on a democratic constitution," Mr Bush said.

"Later this year, that constitution will be put before the Iraqi people for their approval. The establishment of a democratic constitution is a critical step on the path to Iraqi self-reliance."(AP)


The main points of dispute in talks over Iraq's constitution:

Federalism: Sunni Arabs, who see themselves as the historical glue for Iraqi unity, have resisted federalism as a ruse for eventual Kurdish independence. Shia religious leaders have blown hot and cold on decentralisation. Some now suggest that the Shia regions of the south should also form a " federated region". Iraq's transitional administrative law (TAL), signed in March 2004, allows any three of the 18 provinces the right to form an autonomous region. There is argument over whether that provision should be changed to make forming regions harder.

Islam: Shia clerics originally argued for Iraq to be named an "Islamic republic", like Shia Iran, with Islamic law in force. Secularists fear that if Islam is the sole source of law, parliament or local government could enact laws that would restrict women's rights.

Resources: Sunnis are keen for central government in Baghdad to have control over all or the majority of the country's oil revenues. Iraq's huge oil reserves are located around Basra in the south and Kirkuk in the north - another spur for Kurds and Shias to favour federalism.