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Sunnis Threaten Constitution Protests

Voting on constitution delayed again because of disputes on issues ranging from federalism to de-Baathification.
By Dhiya Rasan

Leading Sunni politicians warned there would be widespread demonstrations if the National Assembly approves a constitution that Sunnis have rejected.


A draft of the constitution was submitted to parliament just before a midnight deadline on August 22, but voting on the document was delayed for another three days to try to resolve remaining disagreements.


“If the constitution is passed there will be uprisings in the streets,” said Salih al-Mutlak, one of the main Sunni negotiators on the parliamentary constitution committee.


Federalism is still the most contentious issue as Sunnis agree to the autonomy already established in Iraqi Kurdistan but reject any expansion of federalism, including more independence for the Shia south. They say federalism will divide Iraq along sectarian lines and strongly reject the concept.


There are also disagreements about the policy of ridding the government of members of the former Baath Party; the Arabic identity of Iraq; and the system of choosing the president, prime minister and National Assembly speaker, which currently requires a two-thirds majority.


One issue that was resolved was the role of Islam, which is named as “a main source of legislation” instead of “the main source” - wording that some religious Shias preferred. But the draft constitution also states that no law can contradict Islam.


It has been difficult for political leaders and lawmakers to find consensus on the constitution, forcing them to delay the original deadline of August 15 for one week.


Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitution committee, said the Kurds were still in disagreement with the Shias half an hour before the latest midnight deadline.


Another Kurdish source close to the negotiations said the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, played a major role in the negotiations and encouraged lawmakers to come to an agreement.


Al-Mutlak said they met with their Shia and Kurdish counterparts only twice during the week before the August 22 deadline. Because they largely boycotted the January elections, Sunnis have only 17 members in the 275-member National Assembly.


As a result, Shia and Kurds have the power to approve the constitution without Sunni participation. The document will then be put to a national referendum on October 15.


Members of the mainly Shia United Iraqi Alliance, which won the January elections, said they were ready, with the Kurds, to pass the constitution by themselves.


“We don’t have extra time for Sunnis to realise the meaning of federalism,” said Jalaladdin al-Saghir, a United Iraqi Alliance representative and a member of the constitution committee. “If they don’t want this constitution, they can reject it by their vote in the referendum.”


If a two-thirds majority of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 governorates disapproves of the constitution, it will fail.


But al-Saghir said they are lobbying groups in Sunni provinces as well as Shia tribes in Mosul and Kurds in Salahaddin province to come out to vote in favour of the document.


Sami al-Majun, a representative of Iraq’s tribes, said his group opposed the removing of provisions that gave tribes a stronger role in society.


Still, other groups said they also reject the draft constitution. Hanin Mahmood, a representative of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, said it does not guarantee their rights.


“We may mobilise the masses to vote against the constitution,” he said.


Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.