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US Releases Iraq Prisoners, Constitution Talks at Critical Impasse 

  • Phillip Robertson

The U.S. military has announced the release of nearly 1,000 Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison, as negotiations on Iraq's draft constitution continue.

The prisoner release came after a request by the Iraqi government. It followed appeals by a Sunni negotiator on the constitution committee for thousands of prisoners to be freed before a referendum on the draft constitution, scheduled for October 15.

The U.S. military said the released prisoners were not guilty of serious or violent crimes.

The decision to release the prisoners is widely seen as a move to facilitate negotiations between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ite Muslim and Kurds.

Early on Saturday, Iraq's speaker of parliament said Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds have agreed on a revised draft constitution, making what they said were compromises taking into account Sunni Arab concerns.

But Sunni leaders denied suggestions that the proposed changes to the draft constitution made it acceptable to them, and have responded with counter-proposals that reportedly include allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to re-enter public life.

Another major issue is the role of the federal government. Sunni Arab leaders oppose allowing portions of Iraq to govern themselves, and are demanding a strong central government. The speaker of parliament said the Shi'ites and Kurds were proposing delaying the details of federalism until after the next parliament is elected in December.

Once agreement is reached on a final text of the constitution, Iraqis will be asked to approve it in a national referendum, currently scheduled for October 15. Sunni Arab leaders have said they will urge a "no" vote, if their demands are not met. If two-thirds of the voters in three Iraqi provinces vote against the constitution, it will fail. Sunni Arabs have a majority in at least four of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Sunni Arabs are poorly represented in the current parliament due to their large-scale boycott of the January 30 elections this year. They have 17 of the 275 seats in the parliament, not sufficient to vote down the constitution when it goes before the legislature.

Other significant political groups within Iraqi society have also called for the rejection of the draft. Followers of Moqtada Sadr, a radical Shi'ite cleric who led major uprisings last year, joined with a Sunni group, the Association of Muslim scholars, to describe the constitution as a "political process which had been led by occupiers and their collaborators."

As the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-backed draft makes its way to the assembly, many in Baghdad fear a deepening of the ethnic and religious divisions that already plague Iraq.