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Iraq’s constitution faces stiff challenges

Iraq’s constitution may take longer to finalise after the United States, which is overseeing the process, raised the possibility of further changes to the existing draft.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is reported to have said that a “a final, final draft has not yet been, or the edits have not been, presented yet”. This suggests that the Bush administration may be pushing for a charter that will be broadly accepted by all the peoples of Iraq.

The Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa is reported to have said parts of the Iraqi draft constitution are a “recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it.”

He told reporters that League shared Sunni concerns about federalism and the fact the charter does not identify Iraq as an Arab country.

‘It is a recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it’ – Arab League

However one of Iraq’s biggest Arab Sunni parties said on Monday it might back the constitution, but it urged changes to the text accepted by the Shia- and Kurd-dominated parliament on Sunday.

Last week the Shia-Kurdish majority finalized the draft constitution despite objections from the Sunni Arabs that it needed revision.

A Shia leader told reporters that only minor editing would now be accepted, because the draft was now ready for voters in a referendum to be held on 15 October. Influential Shiite lawmaker Khaled al-Attiyah, a member of the constitution drafting committee, insisted Tuesday that “no changes are allowed” to the draft “except for minor edits for the language.”

Thousands of Sunnis in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, took to the streets to voice their opposition to the plan. A statement was read out denouncing the constitution as a “Jewish” document that would divide Iraq along sectarian lines.

Meanwhile thousands of Shias gathered in Baghdad to show their support for the draft constitution, which offers a measure of autonomy for millions of Shias in the oil-rich south.

The Sunnis are primarily objecting to federalism, which would create Kurdish and Shiite mini-states threatening the access to oil wealth by the Sunnis. These areas were under the control of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party. They are also against the description of Iraq as an Islamic but not Arab state, which would associate it with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Mr Moussa, of the Arab League, told the BBC: “I share the concerns of many Iraqis about the lack of consensus on the constitution.” He said he was concerned that the draft text denies Iraq’s “Arab identity”.

“I do not believe in this division between Shia and Sunni and Muslims and Christians and Arabs and Kurds,” he said. “I don’t buy this and I find in this a true recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it.”

Parts of the draft constitution says Iraq is “part of the Islamic world and its Arab people are part of the Arab nation” - an apparent concession to non-Arab minorities like the Kurds. Sunni negotiators wanted the text to say that Iraq as a whole is part of the Arab world.

Plans are being made to distribute copies of the text around the country.

However it is possible the document may never come into force. The constitution has to be approved by a majority of voters across the country - as well as not being rejected by two-thirds of voters in at least three or more of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Analysts say the Sunnis are dominant in four provinces and thus in effect have a power of veto.

‘No changes are allowed …except for minor edits for the language.’ – Shia leader

Currently, Kurds already have an autonomous region in the north and continue to back such a de-centralized government. They controlled these areas by military force opposing Saddam Hussein until he was deposed. Now they are anticipating a legitimisation of their authority in the area once the constitution agrees on granting them autonomy under federalism.

Under the draft constitution, Kurds would be allowed to keep that autonomous region, an Iraqi Government spokesman said. Shia Arabs have voiced support for an autonomous region in the south, a fairly recent concept opposed by Sunni Arabs.

But the draft sidelines details on federalism until six months after a new assembly convenes in December - a move aimed at appeasing Sunni concerns, the government says. The draft also sidelines the issue of de-Baathification, another issue with the Sunni who want the reintegration of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party members.

Essentially, it transfers those two issues to a future government. If the constitution does not win national support, the Iraqi government may have to dissolve, and there could be elections for a new transitional national assembly. A delay in the ratification of the constitution may disrupt the US administrations timetable for withdrawal from a peaceful Iraq.

Meanwhile US President George W. Bush, facing waning support for his Iraq policy, rejected protesters’ calls for a troop withdrawal and appealed to Americans not to waver because of the rising death toll - now put at nearly 1,900.

The US war in Iraq now costs more per month than the average monthly cost of military operations in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing new research.

The report, entitled "The Iraq Quagmire" from the Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy in Focus, both liberal, anti-war organizations, put the cost of operations in Iraq at $5.6 billion per month.

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