Sunni-Shiite Quarrel Edges Closer to Political Stalemate

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

June 13, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 12 - Iraq moved further toward a political stalemate on Sunday, after Shiite political leaders agreed on what they said was a compromise to include Sunni Arabs in the writing of a constitution. Sunni representatives rejected the offer.

In an attempt to defuse a political confrontation with this country's embittered Sunni Arabs, the Shiite-led constitutional committee of the Iraqi Parliament met for several hours on Sunday and decided to give Sunni Arabs 15 seats with full membership on the 55-member committee and 10 adviser positions. The Sunnis have insisted on at least 25 seats.

Sunni Arabs, about a fifth of Iraq's population, are thinly represented in Parliament because many refused to vote in national elections in January. American officials have been pressing Shiite and Kurdish leaders to give Sunni Arabs a greater role in politics.

"I think they will accept because we are offering everything for them," said Bahaa al-Aaraji, a Shiite political leader who is a senior member of the committee.

But two Sunni political leaders interviewed by telephone shortly after the decision said bluntly that it would be rejected by the majority of Sunni Arabs, whose fringes, which include former Baath Party members and militant Islamists, drive the radical insurgency here.

"Arab Sunnis will not accept this number," said Mejbel al-Sheik Isa, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that has urged political involvement. "Advisers? It's not our mission. When we say participation, we mean real participation."

"If we will not participate in the constitution," he said, "that means an increase of violence in Iraq."

Even before the political setback on Sunday, insurgent-driven violence took more lives. On Sunday, the American military announced the deaths of four marines, all killed by roadside bombs on Saturday. They were killed in two different vehicle accidents in Anbar Province, a Sunni Arab region that strongly supports the insurgency.

And in another discovery of corpses, an official in the Interior Ministry said that the Iraqi police had found 20 decomposed bodies in Nahrawan, an area south of Baghdad. The bodies were buried in a field that had been used for shooting practice by the old Iraqi Army.

In a familiar scene, the bodies bore signs of torture. They were dressed in plain clothes and appeared to have been killed four or five months ago, the official said. The police were not yet able to identify the bodies.

Authorities found bodies at two other sites as well. In Huriya, a Shiite area in northwestern Baghdad, three bodies were found shot in a 1984 Toyota, and later on Sunday, three more were found in eastern Baghdad, in an area close to a Shiite slum.

Though the constitutional committee members met Sunday to discuss seats for Sunni Arabs, they will not formally make the offer until their next meeting with them, scheduled for Thursday, delaying any formal acceptance or rejection of the offer for nearly a week.

The committee is under pressure to complete a draft of the constitution by Aug. 15, so the country can vote on it in October and hold new elections in December. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's prime minister, said recently that the deadlines would not be extended.

One of the reasons an agreement has been difficult to reach is that Iraq's Sunni Arabs are a disparate and sometimes competing minority. In the last meeting, committee members said each Sunni group came with different lists of names, making for unwieldy negotiations. And within the groups themselves, hard-liners refuse to agree to what more moderate Sunni Arabs accept.

Tarik al-Hashimy, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni party, said in a telephone interview that the less flexible Sunni Arabs in the parties would reject Sunday's proposal, ruining its chances for success.

"We have enough hard-liners," he said, adding that "we have enough problems convincing them to accept the figure of 25 seats."

Even so, some among the Sunni insurgents have recently struck a conciliatory tone, seeking an audience with the government, said Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Mr. Jaafari. "Many of these groups contact us directly and say, 'We did not kill Iraqis, and we want to participate in the political process.' " he said.

Meanwhile, an outspoken supporter of the war, Representative Walter B. Jones, Republican of North Carolina, said in an interview Sunday on the ABC News program "This Week" that he had changed his position, and he called for a fixed timetable for withdrawal of troops here.

The remarks came two weeks after military commanders told a Congressional delegation visiting Iraq that it would take about two years before enough Iraqi security forces were sufficiently trained to allow the Pentagon to withdraw large numbers of American troops.