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Iraqi Parliament Set to Vote on Constitution Despite Opposition


The Iraqi Parliament is scheduled to vote on a new constitution Thursday, despite major objections by some Sunni and secular leaders. The draft document was presented to parliament earlier this week, and since then efforts to reach a consensus have failed.

Some leaders of Iraq's Sunni population, which dominated politics during the regime of Saddam Hussein, argue the proposed constitution will lead to a divided Iraq, with Kurds continuing their rule in the north and Shi'ites gaining autonomy in the oil rich south.

Some secular Iraqis have also expressed concerns that the constitution may lead to domination of the country's legal system by Muslim clerics.

Rend Francke is the executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a group that is based in Washington, but has been working in Baghdad for democracy and human rights. Mrs. Francke says the draft constitution represents a political compromise between the Kurds and Shi'ites that largely excludes input from Sunni leaders.

"The whole text has become a sort of settlement between contending parties that have historic fears and have future ambitions. The document embodies their desire for self-protection and their aspirations to create something more than what they have now," said Mrs. Francke. "Left out of this deal making have been the Sunnis. The Sunnis main problem is whether they are going to be left as a rump state in Iraq and not only be marginalized, but will be deprived of resources."

U.S. officials have put significant pressure on Iraqi politicians to come as close as possible to meeting the deadline for drafting the constitution.

The Bush administration is eager to begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq next year, and hopeful a constitution and elections will help reduce support for the violent insurgency.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the new Iraqi constitution needs to be balanced, but not perfect. "The constitution, to be successful, has to take into account the legitimate interests, and fashion a balance in the federalism aspect of it, and in the other key things that they're worried about," he said. "So that they'll all nod and say, 'Well, I really don't like it. It's not perfect. But it's good enough. And, by golly, if we have to amend it, lots of other countries have amended their constitutions. If there's something we made a mistake on, we'll just have to fix it later."

Neil Kritz directs the Rule of Law Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is working with the Iraqi Constitutional Committee and the United Nations to encourage broad public participation in the process of drafting and approving a new constitution. Mr. Kritz says once the National Assembly approves the document, a large public information campaign needs to be launched before a referendum on the constitution can take place in October.

"What is left now is obviously going to be a, no doubt, massive marketing effort to really try to engage people, to the extent possible, in the coming weeks to understand what is in this constitution, to debate it, at least with respect to making an educated decision with respect to their vote in the referendum and hopefully to acquire some greater sense of ownership and understanding looking toward the next phase when they will be responsible for monitoring the implementation of this constitution and shaping the next phase," said Mr. Kritz.

Sunni Muslims in Iraq cannot block the approval of the constitution in Parliament, where Sunnis won only a handful of seats because of a boycott during last January's elections.

However, Sunnis could try to defeat the proposed constitution during the referendum, where a negative vote by two-thirds of participants in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces would be sufficient to reject the draft.

In contrast to the boycott of the parliamentary elections, Sunni religious and political leaders are now urging members of their community to register to vote in the October referendum.

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