Charter Talks in Iraq Reach Breaking Point
By DEXTER FILKINS and JAMES GLANZ
Published: August 26, 2005
(must register to the NY Times to view original article)
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 25 - Talks over the Iraqi constitution reached a
breaking point on Thursday, with a parliamentary session to present the
document being canceled and President Bush personally calling one of the
country's most powerful Shiite leaders in an effort to broker a last-minute
Mr. Bush intervened when some senior Shiite leaders said they had decided to
bypass their Sunni counterparts, as well as Iraqi lawmakers, and send the
document directly to Iraqi voters for their approval.
The calls by Shiite leaders to ignore the Sunnis' request for changes to the
draft constitution provoked threats from the Sunnis that they would urge
their people to reject the document when it goes before voters in a national
referendum in October.
At day's end, American officials in Washington declared that the Iraqis had
made "substantial and real progress" toward a deal on the constitution. And
senior Iraqi leaders said they would make a last-ditch effort on Friday to
strike a deal.
But after so many days of fruitless negotiations, some senior political
leaders here suggested that time had run out.
"There are still some negotiations, but if we don't have any compromise,
then that's it," said Sheik Khalid al-Atiyya, a Shiite negotiator. "We will
go to the election to vote on it."
A decision by the Shiites to move ahead without the Sunnis would be a
considerable blow to efforts by the Bush administration to bring the leaders
of the Sunni minority into the negotiations over the constitution.
Mr. Bush and American officials here have expressed hope that bringing the
Sunnis into the drafting of the constitution could help coax them into the
political mainstream, and ultimately begin to undercut support for the
guerrilla insurgency. The Sunnis largely boycotted the parliamentary
elections in January.
In recent weeks, Sunni leaders across north and central Iraq have begun
telling their communities to register for and vote in the Oct. 15 referendum
on the constitution and in the parliamentary elections scheduled for
December. That trend could be endangered if Sunni leaders are not part of a
deal on the constitution.
Indeed, the events of Thursday raised the prospect that the Sunnis would try
to reject the constitution when it goes before the voters. Under the rules
agreed to last year, a two-thirds majority voting against the constitution
in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces would send the document down to defeat.
The Sunnis are thought to constitute a majority in three provinces.
By Thursday night, Sunni leaders were declaring that they had been
victimized by the majority Shiites, and they were already making plans to
sink the constitution at the polls.
"We will call on people to say no to this constitution," said Kamal Hamdoun,
a Sunni leader who is head of the Iraqi Bar Association. "This constitution
was written by the powerful people, not by the people."
"This constitution achieved the ambitions of the people who are in power,"
The Sunni leaders adamantly oppose language in the constitution that could
allow the Shiites to create a vast autonomous region in the oil-rich
southern part of the country. In the current draft, the constitution says
each province may form its own federal region and join with others.
In the debate over autonomous regions, the Kurds, who already have one such
region in the north, largely stood on the sidelines. But the Sunnis say that
such an arrangement could cripple the Iraqi state, and that the Shiite
autonomous region would probably fall under the sway of their
Shiite-dominated neighbor, Iran.
Despites their protests, there are widespread doubts about the sincerity of
the Sunni negotiators. Most of the 15 members of the Sunni negotiating
committee were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and there is a
growing sense among Shiite leaders that their primary goal is to block any
agreement at all.
In any case, the Shiite leadership has been ardent in its desire to set up a
Shiite-dominated autonomous region, particularly Abdul Aziz Hakim, a cleric
and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. As
advocated by Mr. Hakim, the Shiite region would comprise nine of Iraq's 18
provinces, nearly half the nation's population and its richest oil fields.
Mr. Hakim and many of the senior members of his group, the Supreme Council,
lived for many years in Iran and even fought on the Iranian side during the
Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. The Supreme Council is suspected by American
officials of receiving large amounts of assistance from the Iranian
The effort by the Shiites to bypass the Sunnis began Thursday afternoon,
when they canceled a meeting of the Iraqi National Assembly, which was set
to gather, and possibly vote, on the final draft constitution. While many
Iraqi leaders first interpreted that decision as simply a delay, the Shiites
made it clear that they were considering bypassing the Assembly altogether
and of forgoing any further changes to the document.
Because the majority Shiites dominate the National Assembly, there is little
the Sunnis can do to stop them from writing whatever constitution they
The concern that a deal on the constitution was falling apart appeared to
have to prompted Mr. Bush to call Mr. Hakim to urge a comprise. One Iraqi
official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the Americans, who
have already expressed their frustration with the Sunnis, have recently
become irritated with what they regard as the stubbornness of the Shiites as
"The Americans are very angry that the Shia are not agreeing on this," the
Iraqi official said. "They really want them to make these concessions to the
Sunnis to keep them on board."
"They think that without keeping the Sunnis on board, many things will go
wrong, including the security," the official said.
The other outstanding issue was whether the constitution would contain
language banning any remnants or symbols of the Baath Party, which was
dominated by Sunnis. The Sunnis are concerned that this may lead to their
exclusion from government jobs and that they will be unfairly discriminated
against in public life.
While some Iraqi leaders expressed hope that more negotiations would produce
a breakthrough, there was also evidence that the more they talked, the more
the distance between them grew.
When the negotiations began Thursday morning, Sunnis came in with an
ambitious list of demands on issues like federalism and de-Baathification,
both of which they ardently oppose and would like to excise from the
As the day wore on, no breakthrough materialized. "We discussed all the
articles that we have a problem with, but we didn't find any solution," said
Haseeb Aref, one of the Sunni negotiators.
Meanwhile, some of the Sunnis maintained that after all the missed
deadlines, the current government had lost its own legal standing.
Under the language of the interim constitution currently in force, the
National Assembly is required to dissolve itself if it does not complete a
new constitution by the deadline, unless it amends the constitution. It
failed to do either one of those on Thursday.
"The process was illegal," said Kamal Hamdoun, the Sunni member of the
committee. "They don't have a right to extend."
At a news briefing late Thursday evening, Hachem al-Hassani, the speaker of
the National Assembly, felt compelled to respond to those allegations. He
said he believed that the assembly had proceeded strictly according to the
As common ground fell away, leaders of the majority Shiites expressed
confidence that the Sunnis would fail to muster the necessary two-thirds
majority in three provinces to sink the constitution.
Ordinary Sunnis, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a Shiite leader, "do not all have the
same views and the same ideas." As a result, he said, opponents of the
constitution "will not get 'no' in the referendum."
Mr. Hassani, a secular Sunni who has supported the Shiite leaders, expressed
hope that the talks on Friday would produce the compromise that has eluded
negotiators so far.
"We think the door is still open to find a solution," Mr. Hassani said.