Global Policy Forum

Sunnis to Accept Offer of a Role in Constitution


By Sabrina Tavernise

New York Times
June 16, 2005

Iraqi political leaders broke weeks of deadlock on Thursday, with Sunni Arabs accepting a compromise offer to increase their representation on the Shiite-led parliamentary committee that is to draft a constitution. The agreement was a significant step forward in Iraq's political process, which has been mired in arguments between Shiite and Sunni Arabs over how many Sunnis to include on the committee. Still, it fell short of being final, as political leaders have not yet agreed which Sunnis would be chosen as members.

The offer - 15 additional seats and 10 adviser positions for Sunni Arabs - was first made last week, but was rejected by many Sunnis, who said they wanted more seats. Since then, Shiite committee members sweetened the offer, saying the committee would approve the new constitution by consensus and not by vote, making the precise number of seats held by each group less important.

Progress on the constitution came as American military forces in Mosul announced they had captured an insurgent leader they identified as Mohammed Sharkawa, a lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted militant in Iraq. The American military said an American soldier, Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, 37, of the 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard, had been charged in the deaths of two soldiers on June 7 on a military base in Tikrit, north of Baghdad. He was being held in a military facility in Kuwait.

The two soldiers, Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and First Lt. Louis E. Allen, died from their wounds after being hit by what investigators initially thought was indirect fire at a window on the side of a building they were in. After further investigation, "it was determined the blast pattern was inconsistent with a mortar attack," the military statement said.

Insurgent violence continued in Iraq, with more attacks on security forces and reports of the deaths of six American service members who were killed Wednesday near Ramadi. American and European officials have expressed hopes that greater involvement of Sunnis in the political process will help damp the insurgency, whose driving force comes from violent fringes of the Sunni Arab community.

Bahaa al-Aaraji, a senior member of the committee, said Thursday night that Shiite leaders had impressed upon the Sunnis that the offer on representation was final. "We told them, if you are late, it's not good for you, because we start to work and we won't wait for you," he said. "That's why they agreed quickly. Everything is good now. Today everyone is happy."

Sunni leaders plan to meet Saturday to discuss possible candidates for the panel, said Mejbel al-Sheik Isa, a member of the National Dialogue Council and one of six Sunnis who will choose the new members. The effort could prove to be a lengthy one. The Iraqi government went through a similar process in a search for suitable Sunni candidates for its cabinet, and those talks dragged on for weeks.

But even if its membership is swiftly decided, it is unclear how the committee will be able to steer the unwieldy and contentious process of writing this country's first permanent legal guide without the tool of the vote. Issues like how much power to give to regional governments and the role of Islam are hotly contested, and resolving them without being able to vote might prove all but impossible.

Formally, the agreement sets up what is essentially a new 71-member body that is made up of the 55 members of the original committee and the new Sunni members, and one member of the small Sabian religious sect added last week. The original committee was made up of legislators elected in January, with 28 members from the main Shiite block, and 27 others, including 15 Kurds and a Christian. There are two Sunnis on the 55-member committee: one is independent; the other is a member of the party of Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite former prime minister.

According to the rules being drawn up, the new Sunni committee members will not be chosen from members of Parliament. In many ways, the deal is a fresh start for the dispossessed Sunni Arabs, who have grown increasingly isolated since largely refusing to vote in elections in January. Shiites, who swept to power in the elections, have been under pressure by Americans and Europeans to offer Sunni Arabs a bigger role in politics.

"A lot can still go wrong," a Western diplomat here said Thursday night. "This is definitely a step forward but I would suggest that people not say this is a done deal until they have agreed on all the names." Iraqi leaders have pledged they will not resort to a legally available extension of the Aug. 15 deadline to write the constitution, and legislators are scrambling to finish. Iraqis will vote on it in October, and national elections will be held in December. "We don't have weeks and weeks," the diplomat said.

Sunni negotiators said they had agreed to accept the Shiite offer on Tuesday night when, at a meeting at the home of one of the negotiators, they decided that any further delay could disrupt the December election and prolong the current transitional government, something they want to avoid. Perhaps more important, they felt that rejecting the offer would simply cement their absence in the political process.

"There was no other alternative," said Saleh Mutlak, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni Arab group that has pressed for a greater role. "Either we'd be in the political process or we'd be out of it." Even so, the deal allows for flexibility. "We can still pull out at any time," he said. Dr. Mutlak said one of the Sunnis' concerns was about the time frame. Two months is too little time to write a permanent constitution, he said. Sunnis will ask for the deadline to be extended. "I don't want to put my name on a constitution that will be written in two weeks," he said. Mr. Mutlak and Mr. Isa said the Sunnis only agreed to the proposal after Shiites committed to making decisions by consensus, rather than by vote.

Of the six new American casualties, five were marines killed near Ramadi on Wednesday when a roadside bomb tore into their vehicle, the military said. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, is a sparsely populated Sunni Arab area that has been fiercely opposed to the American occupation. Marines have conducted two large attacks in the western part of the province in the past two months. The city itself, just 70 miles west of Baghdad, has yet to be swept.

"The situation in Ramadi reflects the kind of cyclical situation we've got," Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston, spokesman for the Multinational Force in Iraq, said at a briefing. In a measure of how powerful insurgents in Ramadi have become, dozens of hooded men surrounded a downtown mosque on Thursday to prevent a meeting of politicians and tribal leaders, The Associated Press reported.

Insurgents also took lives in Baghdad, with at least 6 police officers killed and 27 wounded when a suicide bomber drove a sedan into their convoy on the dangerous airport road, an Interior Ministry official said. In Baquba, north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed three civilians, including two children, and in Kirkuk, another suicide bomber injured four soldiers and four civilians, including a 6-year-old boy.

Insurgent attacks against civilian targets have jumped in recent months, with American and Iraqi officials saying the rise signals an increasingly desperate enemy. "With Zarqawi's push recently, we see the fantastic rise in the number of civilians killed," General Alston said. A White House spokesman said Thursday that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari would visit President Bush on June 24 to discuss "progress in the fielding of Iraqi security forces," among other topics. American military officials have vigorously defended Iraqi troops, whose performance has been criticized by others as inadequate.

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