Shia Propose Taking Constitution to Polls

Iraqi lawmakers face a fourth deadline to agree on a new constitution. Some senior Shiite leaders said they would bypass the Iraqi parliament and send the constitution directly to the Iraqi people for their approval. Sunni Arabs have so far strongly opposed the draft, and negotiators Thursday missed a third deadline.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iraqi lawmakers are making another attempt to agree on a new constitution today. If agreement isn't reached, the constitution still will be put to a vote by the Iraqi people on October 15th. Today's will be the fourth attempt to win Sunni approval of the document. Joining us to talk about the situation is Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad.

And, hello.

Ms. ELLEN KNICKMEYER (Washington Post): Hi.

MONTAGNE: So what is expected to happen in today's meeting?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The object of the talks are to try to bring the Sunni and the Shias closer together. There's groups on both sides of the Shia and the Sunni who are pretty much refusing compromises. Some of the Sunnis don't want any mention of federalism in the constitution because of the fears of the Sunni that it would divide the country and it would create--some of the Shia are looking to creating a Shia federal state in the south that would be oil rich and that could be made up of about half of Iraq's 18 provinces. Lots of Sunnis don't want to weaken the government and they fear being left alone in kind of the western center of the country with no oil revenue, no power and just on the margins of Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Well, as they are down to the wire, federalism--is it the main issue? Are there others?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: There's one that seems small to us but it's an important thing to the Shia and the Sunni, is there's a part in the constitution, the drawn constitution, that equates the Baath Party with terrorism, and the Sunni want that taken out. They see that as insulting and so far, as far as I know, there's no budge on that.

MONTAGNE: And if agreement isn't reached by those negotiating the constitution, as we said, it goes to a referendum anyway on October 15th. And what could happen in that situation?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: That's right. If they can't get the Shia and the Sunni closer together, then the Sunni are going to try to campaign hard to bring down the referendum, and that means there would be a lot of antagonism and a lot of rivalry going into the elections. Hachim al-Hasani, the speaker of the National Assembly, is saying it would be much better to bring the two sides together so that they can be closer to agreement for the constitution just for the sake of avoiding and minimizing violence as much as possible and keeping tensions down.

MONTAGNE: And the US has been pushing to get a constitution agreed upon, but at this moment in time, with all these delays, what's its involvement in the process?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The US ambassador has been very involved from the start. Right now, the US has been pushing hard for the deadline. But I was told by some last night that the US are switching their attention from trying to make the deadline at all costs to trying to get the Sunni on board at all costs I think because they're afraid of the kind of sectarian violence that could result if the Sunni aren't on board.

MONTAGNE: And does it have influence over the Sunni? Is that realistic?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The US has influence over all sides. Most people involved in the negotiations actually say that they appreciate the US ambassador's role in this in trying to bring people together and trying to bring the various sides together and keep them talking. There's no doubt that just the US, because of its position, does have clout with all the five tier.

MONTAGNE: Now yesterday's deliberations occurred against a backdrop of more violence, this time between Shia groups. What's the situation today?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: It's calmer today. Muqtada Sadr, who's kind of a militant Shia cleric who can command thousands of followers in the south, he--that's where lots of violence in maybe 10 cities in the south the day before, he told his followers to stop the fighting, and that's happened. And today, there are supposed to be demonstrations by Shias, but there's no word of any kind of violence that we found in the past two days. But what we saw in the past two days was the most serious fighting between Iraq's militia since the war started and that's a concern, the growing power to the militia and the growing rivalries.

MONTAGNE: Ellen Knickmeyer, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. KNICKMEYER: Yeah, you're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post joined us from Baghdad.

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