Amid Attacks, Political Progress Inches Forward in Iraq

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Gunmen assassinate a top aide to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad. But despite such attacks, Iraq's leaders forge ahead with forming a government and drafting a constitution. Over the weekend, Sunnis formed a new political alliance, and a Shiite cleric moved to ease sectarian violence.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Baghdad today, gunmen assassinated a top aide to Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari, and a car bomb exploded in front of a Baghdad restaurant, killing four people and injuring at least 100. Amid the ongoing insurgent attacks, Iraq's political process is moving forward. Over the weekend, members of the Sunni minority signaled their involvement by forming an alliance of tribal, religious and political groups, and a radical Shiite cleric sought to end sectarian tensions, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON reporting:

At the Mother of All Battles mosque, now known as the Mother of all Villages mosque, representatives of the Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr met with clerics from the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association. And if they didn't exactly bury the hatchet, they at least traded conciliatory letters and focused on things they could agree on. Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Kubeisi with the Muslim Scholars called it a basis for progress.

Sheikh ABDEL SALAM AL-KUBEISI (Muslim Scholars Association): (Through Translator) This is a very clear letter from Moqtada al-Sadr. There should be a basic foundation for all Iraqis. That's a letter of remedy after what the Badr Brigades did to the Muslim Scholars Association and its members.

KENYON: Sunnis accused the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, of killing Sunni clerics, a charge the government denies. The Muslim Scholars also figured prominently at Saturday's gathering of Sunni leaders to announce a political alliance. Not all the Sunni organizations took part, but it was the strongest sign yet that the silent majority of Sunnis may be ready to jump off the fence and respond to the halting outreach efforts by Shiite and Kurdish politicians. One driving force is the renewed push to lay out the constitution that will govern the new Iraq. Many Sunnis want to have a voice in that, and Shiite and Kurdish leaders are well aware that they need Sunnis in the process. Apart from any desire for national unity, there's the clause in the TAL, the Transitional Administrative Law, that says any three provinces can reject the draft constitution by a two-thirds majority vote, scuttling the entire document. Sheikh Homam Hammoudi, who's expected to be named chairman of the constitution committee, says one way to expand Sunni influence would be to create subcommittees which include all groups.

Sheikh HOMAM HAMMOUDI: (Through Translator) The idea is by forming subcommittees, we can have groups covering different areas. There should be special panels for dialogue so we can reach the point of view of others who didn't participate in the election process.

KENYON: Beyond Sunni participation, the most hotly debated issue will be federalism, the question of how much power will be delegated to local or regional bodies. This is especially important to Iraqi Kurds, but similar calls for a measure of autonomy are being heard from Shiite areas, especially in Basra. Iraq's Shiite leaders, determined to implement majority rule in Iraq for the first time in generations, are wary about ceding too much authority. But Saad Khandeel(ph), with the Shiite religious party SCIRI, says there's a general agreement among all the parties that some form of federalism is a good thing.

Mr. SAAD KHANDEEL (SCIRI): What's agreed is that we don't want to put all the power in the central government in Baghdad. So there must be some kind of powers given to the local governments, whether in terms of ...(unintelligible) or in terms of local states, as we have in Kurdistan.

(Soundbite of seminar)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: The constitutional debate is already engaged outside the committee as well. At this seminar sponsored by the Iraqi independent Women's Network, Iraqi women are learning about the drafting process and how to follow it so that over the next few months, they can keep their neighborhoods informed about what protections are being put in the new constitution and what has been left out. Professor Naba Hamid Al-Barak(ph), from Baghdad University, says basic human and civil rights are a top priority for the group.

Professor NABA HAMID AL-BARAK (Baghdad University): Women's rights, child rights, and the unity of the country as one piece. Iraq as one Iraq.

KENYON: Toha Ruhi(ph), a computer engineer by training who currently works as an interior designer, says moderate Iraqis must also guard against efforts by religious leaders to make Islamic Sharia law the only source of legislation in the new Iraq.

Ms. TOHA RUHI (Computer Engineer): The Sharia should be one of the sources. It shouldn't be the only source or the first source, because the Koran doesn't explain everything, but it gives the headlines only.

KENYON: On this subject, too, there appears to be a framework of a compromise but no guarantee it will be easily reached. Professor Hadair Al-Kazahi(ph) takes a conservative view of Sharia, the Islamic code, but he says he recognizes that not everyone shares his view.

Professor HADAIR AL-KAZAHI: (Through Translator) As a Muslim, yes, I do want the Sharia law to be the core of the constitution, but I can't impose it, and I don't like to impose it. If people know that the Islamic law preserves their dignity, then they have the right to choose what they want and bear the responsibility.

KENYON: On Sharia law, women's rights, federalism and other issues, the problems are likely to arise when the details are discussed. But to reach those details, Iraqis will have to learn the messy ropes of democratic debate in a very short time or risk missing the mid-August deadline for having a constitution to present to voters this fall. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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