Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Sunnis Press for Constitutional Changes


By Omar al-Ibadi & Ibon Villelabeitia

May 2, 2006

Iraq's main Sunni Arab political bloc demanded on Tuesday it head a parliamentary committee to amend the constitution, a charter Sunnis say gives Shi'ites and Kurds too much power and eventually will split the country. Iraq's parliament is set to meet on Wednesday for its first day of normal business since it was elected in December to discuss forming a committee to review the constitution -- one of postwar Iraq's most sensitive sectarian issues.

Keen to bring the minority Sunni community into the political process, the United States brokered a deal among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups last year that allows for a parliamentary committee to review the charter. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad mediated the deal shortly before an October referendum on the constitution as a means of defusing Sunni opposition that risked scuppering the charter. The ballot ratified it in the end but came close to a veto as a result of strong 'No' votes in predominantly Sunni provinces.

Sunnis, who dominated under former President Saddam Hussein and now are the backbone of an insurgency, fear the charter's provisions for regional autonomy may give Kurds and Shi'ites control over Iraq's oil reserves and could break up the country.

"It's a matter of logic that the Iraqi Accordance Front heads the committee that will revise the constitution in parliament because the demand of rewriting the constitution was a demand made by the Front," Iyad al-Samarrai, a senior official of the Front, the main Sunni parliamentary group, told Reuters. Under the deal, parliament must form a committee which will have four months to come up with recommendations on how to amend the constitution.


Reviewing the constitution could expose again the country's deep ethnic and sectarian divisions as Shi'ite Prime Minister- designate Nuri al-Maliki strives to form a government of national unity seen as the best hope to avert a civil war.

The Shi'ites, who have a near-majority in the 275-seat parliament, have insisted there can be no major changes to the charter, which they backed as a symbol of Shi'ite empowerment. The Kurds, who have had effective autonomy in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, are intent on cementing that separation. The Shi'ites have also given themselves the option of forging a similar federal region in the oil-rich south.

That could leave Sunnis with a rump state in the middle, where little oil has been found and the land is mostly desert. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world next to Saudi Arabia. Sunnis, suspicious that the ruling Shi'ite Islamists are too close to neighboring Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran, also want the constitution to stress Iraq's Arab identity.

Samarrai, whose bloc backed the Shi'ite Alliance's nomination of Maliki for prime minister last month and helped end a four-month deadlock, acknowledged there could be tough negotiations ahead: "It could be difficult because there are many disputes about the articles." If any changes are made to the constitution, they will have to be approved by parliament and then in another referendum.

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