Thorny Issues Remain on Draft of New Constitution for Iraq


New York Times

July 23, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 22 - With only about three weeks left before the parliamentary deadline for the draft of a new constitution, a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad said Friday that some of the most contentious issues still remain to be resolved, including regional autonomy, women's rights, electoral law and the control of revenues from natural resources.

The disclosures came on the third day of a walkout by the Sunni Arab members of the constitution-writing committee, who halted their participation after two Sunni colleagues were assassinated, throwing the constitutional process into doubt. The comments by the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Western officials are trying to remain in the background, seemed to counter recent comments by some Shiite committee members that the draft was almost complete.

The American authorities have insisted that the National Assembly meet its Aug. 15 deadline to approve the draft to win public confidence, both in Iraq and the United States, in Iraq's fledgling democratic process.

The Americans are counting on clear momentum in the constitutional process to help undermine an unceasing insurgency, which on Friday continued its bloody campaign to topple the Iraqi government with scattered violence.

In the most deadly incident, three brothers, two of them policemen and the third a Sunni cleric, were kidnapped in northern Baghdad around midnight on Thursday, tortured and shot dead with a machine gun, according to an official at the Interior Ministry. Their bodies were found Friday, the official reported.

Gunmen attacked police patrols in Baghdad in three incidents, killing five and wounding four, the official said. Other gunmen killed two members of an Interior Ministry antiterrorism task force in the capital.

An American marine was killed Wednesday by a roadside bomb while conducting combat operations near Zaidon, the American military command reported Friday.

Among their demands, the Sunni Arabs on the 71-member constitution committee have called for government-funded bodyguards and security, as well as an international investigation into the killings of their two colleagues, who were shot on Tuesday in central Baghdad.

But the diplomat also said that in spite of its staunch public demands, the Sunni contingent has privately expressed its intention to return to the negotiating table.

"They definitely want to come back in," he said.

The Sunnis' temporary withdrawal from the process has worried the Bush administration, which views their inclusion in the political process as the decisive factor in deflating the Sunni-led insurgency. Additionally, many Sunni Arabs boycotted elections in January, and the Bush administration's fear is that should Sunni Arabs not help finish the constitution-writing process, their sense of alienation from the new Iraqi government could deepen, with catastrophic results.

Arguably the most contentious remaining issue is regional autonomy. The Western diplomat said that while the Shiites and Sunni Arabs have agreed that the Kurds should keep their autonomous powers, a debate remains over whether and how the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan should be redrawn. At the same time, the Sunni Arabs appear adamant that no other part of Iraq, namely the Shiite-controlled south, should be able to declare autonomy.

The Sunnis are concerned that with Kurdish autonomy in place in the north and Shiites agitating for an autonomous region in the oil-rich south, they will be left with an impoverished region barren of any natural resources.

A prominent Sunni Arab cleric on Friday criticized proposals to transform Iraq into a federal state, saying such a "division of the country" would be a betrayal of the population. "The voices that call for federalism are not those of loyal people," the cleric, Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidie, said Friday at the prominent Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad, Agence France-Presse reported. "The patriots are against dividing the country, and I call on them to fight for maintaining a united Iraq."

The Western diplomat said the disputed issue of women's rights was still on the table, though he said that in the most recent draft he had seen, the drafters had removed a section - Article 14 - that would require court cases dealing with matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance to be judged according to the law practiced by the family's sect or religion. Among other constraints dictated by that measure, Shiite women in Iraq generally could not marry without their families' permission.

Committee members also still have to decide whether national elections are going to be based on a system of provincial representation, as the Sunni Arabs prefer, or a nationwide system, which would favor the majority Shiites and the Kurds.

Finally, the diplomat said, the committee has been wrestling over the sharing of revenues from natural resources, namely oil, and whether revenue will be controlled by local or federal authorities or both. The Kurds believe that in the near future they will be able to gain control of the northern city of Kirkuk, which has oil fields, while Shiites in the south are sitting on the country's largest oil resources. The Sunnis, who dominate the desert region in the western part of the country, are trying to ensure that they will have what they regard as a fair share of the oil profits.