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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
Sunnis split over charter change
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Baghdad

Parliamentary Speaker Hajim al-Hassani, President Jalal Talabani and Deputy Speaker Hussein al-Shahristani hold hands after making the amendments
Iraqi leaders say there is no excuse for Sunnis to reject the constitution
The ceremony endorsing last-minute changes to Iraq's draft constitution bore all the hallmarks of the formal signing of a major international treaty.

The country's political elite including the president, vice-president and prime minister were lined up on a podium in Baghdad's Green Zone, flanked by flags and flowers.

In front of them, members of the National Assembly applauded politely at the appropriate moments.

The prime minister described it as an historic day of consensus for the country.

But nothing was signed at Wednesday's ceremony, nor was there any vote to approve the amendments.

The assembly speaker said it wasn't necessary.

Fears addressed

Earlier President Jalal Talabani told a news conference there was now no excuse for the minority Sunni community to vote against the draft constitution in Saturday's referendum as many have been threatening to do.

He said all their concerns had been addressed in the agreed amendments.

The key changes are the following:

  • Article 1 Iraq is a federal, independent, sovereign republic with a parliamentary democratic system of government. And this constitution will guarantee the unity of Iraq.

  • Article 131 is to be amended to ensure that Sunni Arabs are not purged from official positions simply because they were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. The De-Baathification Committee should only examine cases where a crime has been committed. Parliament will form a separate committe to oversee decisions made on de-Baathification.

  • A committee will be set up after December's parliamentary election which will re-examine the constitution and propose further and possibly far more profound amendments.

Amendments

There is no doubt these changes do go some way to allaying the Sunnis' main fears about the draft constitution.

They have been particularly concerned that under the proposed federal system of government, the majority Shia and the Kurds will be able to set up their own mini-states and control the main oil-fields.

Many Sunni political and religious leaders are highly sceptical about the fanfare surrounding the changes enshrined in Wednesday's agreement

Some even believe that if the Shia are allowed to form their own region in the south it would eventually become part of Iran.

But the problem remains how the minority Sunnis will be able to push through major amendments to the constitution, for example reversing the planned decentralisation of power which would clearly bring so many benefits to the Shia and Kurds.

The committee which will now be formed in December can only propose amendments.

These have to be approved by an absolute majority of parliament before coming into effect.

There may also have to be another national referendum.

Sunnis divided

In these circumstances many Sunni political and religious leaders are highly sceptical about the fanfare surrounding the changes enshrined in Wednesday's agreement.

"Why not postpone the referendum today so we have a real opportunity to revise the constitution and put it to the people in a uniform accepted draft," says Dr Saadoun al-Zubaydi of the Iraqi Council for National Dialogue, "rather than accept it today and say we will look at it later. The logic is crooked."

Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary general of Iraqi Islamic Party, gestures at a press conference in Baghdad
The Iraqi Islamic Party has called on Sunnis to vote Yes

The Iraqi Council for National Dialogue is one of four main Sunni political and religious organisations.

Along with the Association of Muslim Scholars it has already condemned the agreement and continues to urge voters to either boycott Saturday's referendum or vote No.

"The added articles do not change anything and provide no guarantees," says Muthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Many are angry with the Iraqi Islamic Party which is the largest Sunni political organisation, for getting involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement.

The Islamic party is now calling on Sunnis to vote Yes.

Sources in several Sunni areas told the BBC that, as a result, voters were now confused about what they should do.

'Divide and conquer'

A senior official working with an international organisation in Iraq believes the main aim of the amendments announced on Wednesday is to split the Sunni vote.

"It's a divide and conquer strategy," he says, "the Sunni community was split before, but this solidifies the chances of a chunk of the community voting yes [to accept the constitution]."

"The Iraqi government and the American ambassador want to see this constitution pass. They've been working behind the scenes to improve the odds."

Although a minority dominating just four of the country's 18 provinces, the Sunnis could block the constitution if two-thirds of voters in three provinces reject it.

The Shia and Kurdish led government have clearly been worried the Sunnis might just succeed.

Now that does seem even less likely.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Why some Sunnis fear the constitution will split Iraq




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