Iraqi Negotiators Can't Agree on Constitution

Iraq's draft constitution is likely to go to voters in October, over the objections of Sunni negotiators. Shiites and Kurds want a federalized Iraq with a relatively weak central government. Sunnis want a strong federal government.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Negotiations over the Iraqi constitution are apparently over, and deep divisions remain. A draft of a new constitution will be presented at the Iraqi Parliament this weekend, but Sunni negotiators reject it. US pressure, including a personal call from President Bush to a leading Shiite leader, apparently failed to bring about a compromise between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish negotiators. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Baghdad.

Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And finally, what look to be the surviving objections that the Sunni leaders simply will not accept?

AMOS: Well, there are still some talks today, and the speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly released a statement that suggests that maybe there's a compromise. But when you talk to Sunni negotiators, they still say that there's no deal. The sticking point remains the same as at the start of this process, and that is the nature of the Iraqi state, federalism. The Shiites, as do the Kurds, now want a federal Iraq, and they're pushing for a superprovince in the south with nine out of the 18 provinces as one unit. The Sunnis, they want a unified state with a strong central government. That superprovince in Iraq smacks of a breakup of Iraq for them. The draft constitution will be presented to the Parliament, and the Sunnis will be rejecting that document.

SIMON: There's expected, of course, a scheduled referendum this fall. What many people hoped could be an exercise to submit national unity may instead be contentious. Do you hear any talk about a boycott by Sunnis?

AMOS: In fact, the contrary. There's probably going to be a large vote. Already, you are seeing imams in mosques calling on Sunnis to register, and this time they are ignoring the warnings of al-Qaeda in Iraq who've warned them not to vote. They are going out and registering. This morning, in the Shiite community, the most respected Shiite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a religious edict saying that Shiites had to register to vote in the referendum. Also, you're seeing lots of meetings all over the country. Non-governmental organizations are bringing Iraqis together to get them ready for this referendum in October.

SIMON: And could the constitution fail?

AMOS: There's a good chance that it will because it's not now just Sunnis who are rejecting the proposed constitution. There are secular Iraqis who think it's too religious. There are women's groups who think that they will not get enough protection under this constitution. There are religious Shiites, in particular a radical young cleric named Moqtada Sadr, who's rallied his followers against the draft constitution. So it's possible it could fail, which could mean that Iraq is further destabilized.

SIMON: Finally, US military announced they were releasing a thousand prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison today. Does that have any relationship to negotiations over the constitution?

AMOS: It does and it doesn't. This process has been going on for some time. I talked to the government spokesman this morning, and he said somewhere around 200 prisoners are set free every week, but the government asked for this 1,000. It's been publicized, and it is to send a political message, he told me. And the message is one of reconciliation because all of these prisoners are Sunnis. And as you know, this is the community that has the biggest objection to the proposed constitution. So that's why this release was so highly publicized.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott.

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