Sunnis Hard to Include, Harder to Leave Out

ARBIL – Despite the signing of a draft constitution by the Iraqi constitutional panel comprising mainly Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders, Sunnis are still seeking amendments to the text.

Iraqi leaders agreed to a common text Sunday, but did not send it to parliament for ratification. They said it would be put to referendum directly Oct. 15.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged at a press conference this week that further changes are being considered to accommodate Sunnis. Khalilzad’s remarks shocked Shi’ites and Kurds who had thought the constitution file was closed.

Sunni hardliners say the draft constitution would lead to the break-up of Iraq. They also fear it would subjugate them to Kurd and Shi’ite rule.

But some Kurdish and Shi’ite leaders say that Sunni leaders who oppose the constitution lack sufficient backing from their people.

"One should realize that many of their representatives participated in the talks and signed the draft," Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region and head of the Kurdish negotiating team in Baghdad told reporters in Arbil. "Nobody knows how many people those who reject the constitution represent, because they were not elected but appointed."

Sunnis enjoyed immense political power under Saddam Hussein but boycotted the first postwar elections earlier this year.

Sunnis oppose references in the draft constitution to "federalism" and to "regions", and to them as the "Arab people of Iraq" rather than to Iraq as an Arab nation.

The new reference has provoked strong reactions also from the Arab League, an organization of all Arab nations.

"This is a dangerous thing and Iraqi authorities have to offer an explanation over this," Arab League general secretary Amir Musa said in a statement. He said Iraq was "a founding member of the Arab League" and must stick to its Arab identity. But while Sunnis have difficulties with the draft constitution, others may not now accept further changes.

Kurds say that if further changes are going to be made to the constitution, they will demand a clear reference to the "self-determination right" that would give them the option of seceding.

"It was under heavy American pressure and Shi’ite and Sunni Arab opposition that Kurds couldn’t clearly enshrine the self-determination right in the constitution," chief Kurdish negotiator Mahmoud Othman told IPS from Baghdad.

"Americans are intensively engaged in the constitutional process," he added.

Sunni leaders have accepted a Kurdish autonomous region in the north, saying this has existed since 1991. But they reject a Shi’ite autonomous region.

Shi’ites agreed at the last minute in the last round of constitutional talks to postpone formation of an autonomous region in the Shi’ite-dominated south and to leave the issue for the parliament to decide. But the concession failed to satisfy Sunnis.

Most of Iraq’s oil and other natural resources lie in the Shi’ite and Kurdish areas. Sunnis are worried that autonomy for their regions would impoverish Sunni areas.

In an attempt to get Sunnis on board, Shi’ites and Kurds have agreed to central government supervision of revenue distribution. But despite these concessions, Sunni leaders say they will reject the constitution.

Rejection of the constitution can have critical consequences in this already divided country. Some Iraqi politicians are warning of the possibility of a civil war..

"The violence will go up and the hope among people will go down, and the extremists will be the ones who will be in control of the country," Sunni negotiator Salih al-Mutlak told the New York Times.

It would also be a major rebuff to U.S. efforts to complete the political transition process as a precondition to pullout of its troops next year.