Deal Is Elusive in Iraqi Talks

As the deadline for a constitution nears, Sunnis appear prepared to bolt over issues of oil and authority. Their exit would signal a failure.

By Ashraf Khalil

Los Angeles Times

August 14, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi negotiators worked down to the wire Saturday to hammer out details of a draft constitution, but mounting frustrations over contentious issues raised the specter of a Sunni Arab walkout just one day before Monday's deadline.

A last-minute Sunni withdrawal would signal a failure of the months-long effort to coax the former ruling minority into the new Iraqi political order, and could set the stage for the constitution's rejection in an October referendum. It could also deepen the sense of alienation that has fed the country's Sunni-led insurgency and launch a new cycle of violence.

A top Sunni negotiator warned of dire consequences if Shiites and Kurds force through a constitution that establishes a federal system, with semiautonomous regions in the Kurdish north and Shiite south and a comparatively weak Baghdad government.

"If we are pushed in this direction, then the country will continue in the situation it is in now — no stability and no security," Salih Mutlaq said in an interview broadcast on the Al Arabiya news channel.

"We are saying if federalism is going to be approved now, it will mean the destruction of Iraq."

Sunnis ruled Iraq for more than 80 years through a strong and often brutal central government. Most have strongly rejected the concept of federalism backed by the long-oppressed Shiites and Kurds. They also oppose suggestions that revenue, which come mostly from the north and south, be routed through the respective regional states instead of Baghdad.

Jawad Maliki, a top Shiite negotiator, said that with Sunnis balking at those issues, "the discussions are between the Kurds and the Shiites."

Earlier in the day, leaders sounded an optimistic note, with President Jalal Talabani praising the atmosphere of cooperation and predicting that the document could be ready by today.

But the prospects for success seemed dimmer by late Saturday evening, with Shiite negotiators complaining bitterly about Sunni stubbornness and Kurdish sources whispering about the Shiites reneging on already agreed-upon points.

With U.S. officials pushing hard for the negotiations to finish on schedule, the brinksmanship could continue throughout today.

Sunnis have been slow to accept their sudden fall from power after the U.S.-led ouster of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Sunni voters largely stayed away from January's parliamentary vote, either in protest or from fear of insurgent reprisal. The result was a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

The new government, prodded by U.S. officials, worked to bring Sunni leaders into the constitution-drafting process in the hopes that a Sunni stamp of approval would undercut the insurgency.

But a constitution that is disavowed by even the most moderate Sunni leaders would probably have the opposite effect.

At the very least, a constitution that Sunni representatives declared unacceptable would promise a chaotic battle in this fall's national referendum on the document.

The proposed constitution would fail if two-thirds of voters in three provinces rejected it — a formula specifically designed to prevent two of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups from ganging up on the third.

Sunni religious leaders, many of whom backed the January boycott, are now encouraging their followers to register and vote.

A coordinated Sunni-backed "no" campaign would probably produce the necessary numbers in at least two provinces. Two other religiously diverse provinces might also have enough "no" votes.

U.S. officials remained deeply involved in the process, with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad planning meetings today with negotiators on all sides.

In recent weeks, Khalilzad has publicly lobbied leaders on specific points of contention and personally presented negotiators with his own compromise proposals.

Although the Shiites and Kurds seem to have formed a united front on federalism, deep disagreements remain between them on the formula for distributing revenue — which funds more than 95% of Iraq's budget.

A tentative agreement was reached Friday in which profits from existing reserves would go through the central government but those from future exploration would be jointly controlled by Baghdad and the regional governments where the wells were located.

By Saturday, participants said the deal was no longer firm.

Other lingering points of debate include the Shiite desire to enshrine Islamic Sharia law as the primary source of Iraqi legislation. But Shiite negotiators indicated Saturday that a tentative compromise had been struck that would name Sharia as "a primary source," with the condition that no law passed would contradict it.

The language, if it remains, is similar to that of the transitional administrative law, the interim constitution that was drafted by American officials and the defunct U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

Shiite officials also claim to have secured a controversial concession that critics say will threaten the rights of Iraqi women.

Shiite negotiator Baha Araji, reached via cellphone during a mid-negotiation cigarette break, said that personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance would be subject to the religious authorities of each respective faith.

The clause, if it remains, would probably provoke a fierce reaction from women's rights activists, who maintain that their rights will be compromised if subjected to purely religious law.

U.S. officials have already spoken out against the concept, and the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, vetoed a similar proposal by the Governing Council in early 2004.

Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin, Shamil Aziz, Raheem Salman and Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.