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Iraq Referendum Compromise Praised

Top Shi'ite, Kurdish, and Sunni politicians in Iraq gathered to praise a last-minute compromise negotiators reached on the country's draft constitution. The deal significantly increases the chance of the charter being approved in a national referendum on Saturday.

Speaking at a nationally-televised press conference, Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani called the 11th-hour compromises "historic", and said that there was no excuse for Sunni Arabs to boycott or to vote down the charter.

"I hope this will be the beginning of a new kind of cooperation among all Iraqis," said Mr. Talabani. "God save Iraq - united, democratic, federal and independent."

President Talabani was joined at the podium by other leading Iraqi powerbrokers, including the Sunni Arab Speaker of the National Assembly Hajim al-Hassani, secular Shi'ite politician and former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, former interim vice president and Sunni politician Ghazi al-Yawar, and religious cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who head the largest Shi'ite coalition in government.

Marathon talks in recent days looked for ways to soften Sunni-Arab opposition to the charter, which Sunnis say is biased against them and unfair. The constitution was largely written by the country's dominant Shi'ites and Kurds, who suffered for decades under Iraq's former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

The tentative accord reached late Tuesday promises that the next Iraqi parliament, to be formed after elections in December, will set up a special committee to consider constitutional amendments.

The Sunnis are anxious to change three key provisions that deal with federalism, Iraq's national identity, and the status of former members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party.

Federalism is the most contentious issue because Sunnis fear the draft constitution, as it stands, will allow Shi'ites and Kurds to create mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, leaving them poor and politically weak in the center of the country.

Tuesday's compromise theoretically gives Sunnis the ability to try to introduce the changes they want. Those amendments, if any, would then have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and submitted to another referendum.

Members of Iraq's largest Sunni political organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, took part in the behind-the-scenes negotiations. It has welcomed the compromise and says it has begun calling for Sunnis to vote for the constitution.

But with no guarantees that Sunnis will be able to make the changes they seek, other major Sunni parties who were not present at the negotiations say they are not convinced the measure is enough to endorse the charter.

Sunni Arabs need to get "no" votes from two-thirds of voters in three provinces to vote down the charter. And even though they form a majority in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces, they form an outright majority in only one province.

Although their chance of defeating the charter is slim, the United States has been anxious to get Sunni Arabs on board Iraq's political process to help quell the country's Sunni-led insurgency.

President Talabani gave credit to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, for his efforts in mediating an agreement that all sides could accept.

"I must thank our dear friend, Ambasador Khalizad, who played a very friendly, tireless role in trying to show the United States of America is with all Iraqis," he said.

Copies of the draft constitution are already being distributed to Iraqis. Sunni leaders who support the compromise say they will rely on television, radio and newspapers to begin informing the people about the new accord.