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Sunni rejection shadow on Iraq statute

Baghdad, Aug. 28 (Reuters): Iraq’s Shia-dominated parliament completed its work on a constitution today that was at once rejected by minority Sunnis, who said it would be thrown out in an October referendum.

The text read to parliament failed to overcome objections by Sunnis, who lost their political dominance with the fall of president Saddam Hussein, despite intense US efforts to broker a compromise between Iraq’s divided ethnic and religious groups.

The US and Britain, who see approval of a constitution as key to defusing insurgency, welcomed the draft, hailing it as a victory for democracy over extremism.

Rejection in the three of Iraq’s 18 provinces dominated by Sunni Arabs would be enough to torpedo the constitution under current referendum rules, but President Jalal Talabani urged Iraqis to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum ' due by October 15.

“We hope that this constitution will be accepted by all Iraqis and that it will be for everybody. We are optimistic ... For sure there is no book that is perfect and cannot be amended except the holy Quran,” Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla leader who fought Saddam Hussein, told a news conference.

A Sunni Arab delegate on the drafting committee said all his colleagues on the panel objected to the draft presented to parliament.

“We have not agreed on this constitution. We have objections which are the same as we had from day one,” Hussein al-Falluji, the Sunni Arab delegate, said.

“If there is no forging of the results, I believe the people will say ‘No’ to the ‘American’ constitution,” he said.

Although parliament adjourned without a vote, delegates in the Shia- and Kurdish-dominated assembly said the draft’s reading in parliament was enough to signify its acceptance.

“We tried hard to include everybody’s demands but this could not be done. Some people are still opposed to some points. Even I may have some reservations,” said Parliament Speaker Hajim al-Hassani.

“But now we should think of this country and its unity. Whoever wants to change something, then the referendum is the final chance. Iraqis should prepare themselves for elections.” Iraq will hold elections in December after the referendum.

The text read in parliament suggested limited concessions to the Sunnis, whose community is the seat of Iraq’s insurgency.

Retreating from earlier drafts referring to Saddam’s political party, it omitted the phrase “Baath party” and instead banned “the Saddamist Baath and its symbols”.

Sunnis had pressed for the removal of any clauses in the draft that bar party members from public life, arguing that not all of them have blood on their hands.

The text sticks to wording that says Iraq is “part of the Islamic world and its Arab people are part of the Arab nation”. Sunnis, and some Shias, who are also Arabs, wanted it to say that Iraq as a whole is part of the Arab world. The Kurds of the north are Muslims, but not Arabs.

The preamble made clear that Iraq was a federal republic. Sunnis’ main objection has been to federalism, which they fear could lead to the break-up of the country and leave them with a rump state minus the rich oil zones in the north and south.

Forcing the pace as he has done for the past month to keep Iraqi leaders to a US-sponsored timetable, Washington’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was a ubiquitous presence in the meeting rooms of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone yesterday.

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