Shiites and Kurds Halt Charter Talks With Sunnis

By DEXTER FILKINS and JAMES GLANZ

New York Times

August 27, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Saturday, Aug. 27 - Shiite and Kurdish leaders drafting a new Iraqi constitution abandoned negotiations with a group of Sunni representatives on Friday, deciding to take the disputed charter directly to the Iraqi people.

With the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, standing by, Shiite and Kurdish representatives said they had run out of patience with the Sunni negotiators, a group that includes several former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The Shiites and Kurds said the Sunnis had refused to budge on a pair of crucial issues that were holding up completion of the constitution.

The Shiites and Kurds reached their decision in meetings that ran late into Friday night, disregarding the Sunnis' pleas for more time.

The Shiite and Kurdish representatives sought to play down the importance of leaving the Sunnis out, saying that with their Baathist links, they had never truly spoken for the broader Sunni population. The Iraqi leaders who drafted the constitution defended it as a document that would ensure the unity of the country and safeguard individual rights.

"The negotiation is finished, and we have a deal," said Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister and a member of the Shiite leadership. "No one has any more time. It cannot drag on any longer. Most of the Sunnis are satisfied. Everybody made sacrifices. It is an excellent document."

The decision to move forward was a heavy blow for the Bush administration, which had expended enormous energy and political capital to forge a constitution that included the Sunnis. On Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to get a deal, President Bush telephoned Abdul Aziz Hakim, a cleric and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to press him to offer a more palatable compromise to the Sunnis.

The Sunni leaders complained bitterly that the Shiites and the Kurds had offered no real concessions on the two issues that still divided them: autonomy for the Shiite majority and an end to the campaign to root out former Baath Party members from government and society.

The Sunni leaders said they would urge all Sunni Arabs to vote the constitution down when it went before Iraqi voters in a referendum scheduled for Oct. 15. Under a special mechanism agreed to last year at the Kurds' insistence, the draft constitution will be rejected if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it. Sunni Arabs make up a majority in three provinces, though it remains unclear if they could muster a two-thirds majority in all three.

"The alliance said to Iraqis, 'Either you either accept my point of view or there is no constitution,' " said Ayad al-Samaray, one of the Sunni negotiators. "Iraqis want a constitution, but they are not ready to sell Iraq."

In Washington, a senior State Department official insisted that events in Iraq were "moving in a positive direction." He said all Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis who have been taking part in the talks were continuing to discuss details and refinements.

"What we are watching now is the endgame of this process," the official said. "We don't want to get ahead of the Iraqis and make any announcements, but all the parties are involved in the process."

"There are still ongoing conversations about it," he said.

Some Sunni leaders said they were counting on those conversations to secure changes to the constitution that they consider crucial, despite the pronouncements by the Shiites and Kurds that the negotiations were finished.

"By Sunday, we are hoping, we are hoping we can finalize something," said Hachem al-Hassani, a secular Sunni and the speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly.

As written, the constitution represents a comprehensive redesign of the Iraqi state - from one with secular institutions controlled by a powerful central government, to one with a weak central government and a strongly Islamic cast. The draft also contains language guaranteeing individual freedoms and an independent judiciary.

Mr. Khalilzad, the American ambassador, worked furiously through the night to broker a deal, but in the end, he apparently acceded to the decision by the Shiites and the Kurds to bypass the Sunnis.

After Sunni negotiators left the talks, which took place inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, Mr. Khalilzad remained for a time in the home of one of the senior Shiite leaders, and could be heard over the telephone conferring with aides to Mr. Chalabi as they explained their decision to move forward.

From the start, Iraqi leaders and members of the Bush administration have maintained that Sunni participation in the drafting of the constitution, and in parliamentary elections in December, were essential first steps in bringing the Sunnis into Iraq's budding democratic process. The guerrilla insurgency is largely made up of disaffected Sunnis, and the Sunni areas of the country largely boycotted parliamentary elections in January.

Some Iraqi leaders, even some who said they were fed up with the recalcitrance of the Sunni negotiators, said they were worried about producing a constitution formally agreed to by only two of the country's three major groups. Rather than uniting the country, these Iraqis said, there was a risk that such a constitution could drive the groups further apart.

Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a secular Sunni leader, said he agreed with much of what was in the new constitution but was troubled by its more overtly Islamic provisions, like the ones giving clerics a role in adjudicating family law.

Mr. Pachachi, one of the Americans' closest friends in Iraq, said he was growing increasingly worried about the overweening power of the cleric-dominated Shiite political leadership, which maintains extensive ties to the Iranian Islamic government next door.

"They want to inject religion into everything, which is not right," Mr. Pachachi said of the Iraqi Shiite leaders. "I cannot imagine that we might have a theocratic regime in Iraq like the one in Iran. That would be a disaster."

Indeed, under the constitution now completed, Islam will reign as the official state religion and as a main source of Iraqi law. Clerics will in all likelihood have seats on the Supreme Court, where they will be empowered to examine legislation to make sure it does not conflict with Islam. They will be given an opportunity to apply Islamic law in family disputes over matters like divorce and inheritance.

Those provisions have raised concerns here, especially among Iraqi women and secular leaders, who fear that they are laying the groundwork for a full-blown Islamic state.

But the main issue on which the negotiations foundered was federalism. The Shiites, who form a majority in Iraq, want to bring nine Shiite-majority provinces together into one autonomous federation, mimicking the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Shiite region, if formed, would have almost half of Iraq's population and its richest oil reserves.

The Sunnis, who benefited the most under Mr. Hussein and who have formed part of the ruling class here for hundreds of years, are fearful that a Shiite autonomous region would render the central government irrelevant and become a pawn of Iran, the Shiite theocracy.

With the Kurds on the sidelines, nothing remotely approaching common ground could be found between the Shiites and the Sunnis on the issue. According to several Iraqi officials, the final compromise, and the language that will appear in the constitution, would empower the future Iraqi parliament to draw up the rules governing the formation of autonomous regions, like the one envisioned in southern Iraq. But the new parliament is likely to be dominated by Shiites.

The Sunnis and Shiites also disagreed over a host of issues involving Mr. Hussein's Baath Party, particularly the "de-Baathification" committee that is currently rooting former party members out of the government. Under the compromise offered by the Shiites, the new parliament would be empowered to abolish de-Baathification, but only with a two-thirds majority.

Despite lingering claims that a deal had been reached, the signs that the Shiites and Kurds had left the Sunnis behind were everywhere.

"No deal," Saleh Mutlak, the de facto leader of the Sunnis on the constitutional committee, said as the last meeting was ending late on Friday night.

As the meetings broke up, even some of the Shiite leaders conceded that the negotiations were effectively over and began distancing themselves from the Sunnis on the constitutional committee.

"They cannot talk for all Sunnis," said Sheik Khalid al-Atiyya, a senior Shiite member of the committee. "We predict that some of them will not agree on this draft because a big part of them represent the Baathists."

Indeed, it was hard on Friday night to find any Sunnis, on or off the committee, who wholeheartedly endorsed what appeared to be the final document.

When pressed for the names of Sunnis who would back the draft constitution, representatives of Mr. Chalabi's office suggested Mr. Hassani, the secular Sunni speaker of the National Assembly, and provided his mobile phone number. But Mr. Hassani said he had reached no such conclusion.

"No, no," Mr. Hassani said on his phone. "I never said I am in agreement or disagreement."

In fact, Mr. Hassani said, he still had reservations about several parts of the constitution, including the provisions relating to women's rights. From the Sunni point of view, he said, all that had happened was that the Kurds and the Shiites had sent a new proposal to the Sunnis.

The gulf between the two sides was revealed in an exchange on Al Arabiya television between Mr. Samaray, the Sunni negotiator, and Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite.

"There was talk about consensus," Mr. Samaray said, referring to the early days of the negotiations. "Now Mr. Kubba says that consensus is impossible."

Mr. Kubba responded, "The law that controls the whole process does not say consensus."

Among some of the people in the Shiite alliance, though, there was a small sense of triumph. "We made a deal," said Entifadh K. Qanbar, a spokesman for Mr. Chalabi. "The negotiations were long and hard, but they were constructive and helpful."

"My heart is full of joy," Mr. Qanbar said.

Abdul Razzaq al-Saeidy contributed

reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Steven R. Weisman from Washington.