August 23, 2005
Iraq's Assembly Is Given Charter, Still Unfinished
By DEXTER FILKINS and JAMES GLANZ
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 23 - Iraqi leaders submitted a draft
constitution to the National Assembly just before their self-imposed
midnight deadline on Monday, but disagreement with Sunni leaders and other,
secular Iraqis left the document incomplete, with fundamental issues still
In a legal sleight of hand, the Iraqis decided to give themselves three
additional days to close the gaps, despite the requirement in the country's
interim constitution that the document be completed by a deadline, which
already had been extended a week. That left some Iraqis on the 275-member
National Assembly wondering whether they were still in charge, and some
Sunni leaders asserting that the delay was illegal.
Shiite and Kurdish leaders said they had come close to completing the
constitution on Monday night, but had bogged down over a handful of issues
they say can be resolved in the next few days. Most of the disputes pitted
them against leaders of the embittered Sunni minority, who had been shut out
of the negotiations for much of the past week.
But the Sunnis were not alone in their opposition; they were joined on some
major issues by a group of secular Iraqis, led by Ayad Allawi, the former
prime minister. Mr. Allawi's group is concerned about what its members
describe as an Islamist-minded coalition of the majority Shiites that is
pushing for a large autonomous region in the oil-rich south.
Indeed, some Iraqis said Monday that the leaders of the main Shiite
coalition, called the United Iraqi Alliance, had intended to cut the Sunnis
out of the process altogether, and give a completed constitution to the
National Assembly over their objections. Mr. Allawi and some Kurdish leaders
stepped in to block that move.
Whether to allow a large Shiite-dominated autonomous region in southern
Iraq, which also contains the largest oil fields, is the principal
unresolved issue. Sunni leaders and the secular Shiites say they are
concerned that such a huge and powerful autonomous region could lead to the
breakup of the country.
Minutes after the meeting adjourned, Mr. Allawi, a hulking figure, strode
from the National Assembly chambers surrounded by a throng of bodyguards and
aides. Asked whether he thought there would be a deal, he turned his head
"God willing, maybe," Mr. Allawi said, and then he turned down the marble
staircase and headed out.
The unusual way in which the Iraqi leaders presented the constitution to the
National Assembly - claiming they had met their deadline, but granting
themselves another extension - injected a sense of disarray into the
proceedings. Most members left the chambers without reviewing the document.
"I haven't seen it," said Dr. Raja Kuzai, a secular Shiite leader, walking
The 72 hours the Iraqis gave themselves came in addition to the seven-day
extension they voted for a week ago.
At the heart of the dispute was the decision to largely exclude the Sunni
leaders from the talks on the constitution, after the failure to meet the
first deadline last week. That meant that any agreements struck by the
Shiite and Kurdish negotiators were not really complete.
When the Sunnis were finally brought into the negotiations on Monday
afternoon, they promptly rejected several of the constitution's most
"There are about 20 issues in there that are unresolved," said Saleh Mutlak,
one of the Sunni leaders.
Despite the confusion, some Iraqi leaders expressed confidence that they
would be able to finish the constitution in the next three days. In addition
to the unresolved questions on Shiite autonomy, they said the two main
disputes were whether the constitution would contain language barring
members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from working in the government and
how the president and prime minister would be selected.
"The number of issues that we have agreed to in such a short space of time
is remarkable," said Barham Salih, a Kurdish leader and minister for
planning in the current government.
The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has a played a central role
in helping the Iraqis reach a deal, told CNN afterward that the Iraqis had
met "the legal requirement." He hinted at some frustration with the Sunnis,
and said he suggested that he would be pressing them in the days ahead.
"If the Sunnis do not support he constitution, that would be very negative,"
Mr. Khalilzad said. "If one could get from the Sunnis who are participating
in particular broad support, that would be extremely helpful."
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice congratulated Iraqi
leaders for completing a draft constitution and for what she said was a
statesmanlike decision to use the next three days to continue reaching out
to build the broadest national consensus for it.
"Step by step, the Iraqi people are charting their own path toward a shared
future of freedom," Ms. Rice said in a written statement. "The process by
which Iraqis have reached this point is historic and in the best tradition
The Sunni leaders emerged form the negotiations on Monday appearing angry
and frustrated, making it clear that they disagreed on several fundamental
issues. Some of them said they were would refuse even to take part in any
"I don't trust the Shiites anymore," said Mr. Mutlak, the Sunni leader.
"Frankly, I don't trust the Americans."
Shortly after he said that, Mr. Mutlak turned and bumped into Humam Hamoudi,
a Shiite cleric and the chairman of the constitutional drafting committee.
"Congratulations," Mr. Hamoudi said to Mr. Mutlak.
"No, no," said Mr. Mutlak, unsmiling. "Congratulations to you."
"No," Mr. Hamoudi said. "You."
The Sunni leaders said they favored giving the negotiations more time,
perhaps several weeks, or, failing that, a dissolution of the government and
Such a prospect seemed unlikely, if only because the Sunnis, who largely
boycotted the January elections, hold virtually no seats in the Assembly.
For that reason, they cannot legally block the passage of the constitution.
Politically, though, their agreement is considered crucial by many Iraqi
leaders and the Bush administration, since it is the Sunni population that
forms the backbone of the guerrilla insurgency.
Mr. Mutlak and other Sunnis seemed to be trying to leverage that desire as
well as they could. Asked what would happen if the constitution were
approved without their support, Mr. Mutlak hinted darkly at the future.
"If this constitution passes, the streets will rise up," he said.
The Sunnis and other Iraqis, including the secular bloc led by Mr. Allawi,
are concerned that setting up an autonomous region could be a prelude to
establishing a separate state, one that would have most of Iraq's population
and most of its oil. According to some negotiators, the secular Shiite
leaders had favored withholding the incomplete constitution from the
Assembly and opting for a longer delay.
"This is unacceptable," said Dr. Kuzai, a member of Mr. Allawi's party, of
the Shiite autonomous region. "It would lead to the breakup of the country."
The political drama began at 11:20 p.m., when the Assembly members began
filing into their chambers inside the protected Green Zone here. As midnight
approached with all its momentous implications - including the possible
dissolution of the Assembly - a series of cryptic events took place with a
At about 11:45, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in his front-row seat,
scribbled something, possibly his signature, on a large sheet of paper and
handed it to Hussain al-Shahristani, the deputy speaker, who was standing
over him. Mr. Shahristani turned around and gave the paper to Hachem al-Hassani,
the Assembly speaker, who was seated at the center of the podium in front of
Mr. Hassani took the paper, left the room for a few minutes and returned. At
that point, contrary to all expectations, there was no vote of any kind.
"Today we received the draft of the constitution," Mr. Hassani said into his
microphone at approximately 11:55. "But there are some undecided points."
"So these points will be dealt with in the forthcoming three days," he
Then the meeting hastily broke up. The Assembly members streamed out, nearly
all of them without a copy of the constitution in hand.
Kamal Hamdoun, a Sunni member of the committee who is the chief of the Iraqi
Bar Association, immediately declared the maneuvers illegal and asserted
that the government was now acting without any formal authority.
"I warned them," Mr. Hamdoun said. "I told them, you have no legal basis,
and that we are not agreeing to this process. I told the American
Mr. Hamdoun said the disputed way in which the process had gone forward did
not bode well for the referendum on the constitution, presumably still set
for Oct. 15.
"I will tell the people the truth on how this draft has been wrought," Mr.