Sunni Negotiators Again Reject Iraqi Constitution

Amid last-minute U.S. appeals, some members of Iraq's constitution drafting committee signed the draft charter Sunday. But two Sunni Arab negotiators say the Sunni team is rejecting the charter.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Baghdad today, a draft constitution was signed off on by Shiite and Kurd members of the negotiating committee working on the document. But Sunni negotiators rejected it. NPR's Deborah Amos is on the line from Baghdad.

Deborah, tell us, what formally took place today?

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The document is being read in the National Assembly today. It is not yet clear whether the National Assembly will actually take a vote. There's some people who predict that they will, and the reason that they will is to show unanimity in the National Assembly despite the Sunni protests. All members of the Sunni negotiating committee rejected this document, and so it was not--there was no consensus reached, even though there were last night 11th-hour tries, but the divide was just too great between the two sides.

HANSEN: Well, the basic differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites have dominated all the negotiations over this constitution. But have the talks been as contentious as the outcome might imply?

AMOS: I think that they have, not so much in fiery words, but at the end of the day, Liane, this has been an exercise in trying to overcome mistrust and fear, and they couldn't do it. For the Sunnis, they are afraid of federalism because what they are afraid of is to be sandwiched between Kurdistan in the north and a giant Shiastan in the south; two provinces that will have the oil wealth. And after years of ruling Iraq, they see themselves as becoming a permanent and powerless minority.

Now for the Shiites, they are suspicious of the Sunnis because they feel that the Sunnis still don't accept them as legitimate people and capable of running the government. So for them what they wanted was a guarantee that there would be no strong central government, because they feel that the Sunnis are planning for a future comeback. That the surrounding states, which are also majority Sunni, would pitch in with them--Saudi Arabia and Jordan--and they wait for the Americans to leave and come back into power.

So the constitution was a way of everybody trying to protect themselves from the past and from the future.

HANSEN: Now where do the Kurds fit into all of this?

AMOS: The Kurds played politics probably better than any other group. A couple of months ago, the Sunnis were focused on Kurdish demands for federalism. But once the Shiites said that they wanted a super province in the south, then the Sunnis began to focus there. So the Kurds did give. They gave some compromises. The contentious city of Kirkuk has been put off for a couple of years. It's not clear what will happen to that city, but for the most part it is now accepted that the Kurds will keep most of the autonomy that they've had for the last 10 years.

HANSEN: Deborah, you've just returned to Baghdad this past week. You haven't been back since June. What are your impressions upon your return?

AMOS: This time, you know, so much of the political elite is focused on the constitution, and so are we because it's a process and its followable. I find that among our translators, every-day Iraqis, they are not paying that much attention to this, Liane. What their concerns are is--electricity is worse than it's been, water is worse than it's been, the gas lines are longer than they've been. That's daily life. They are very frustrated with their political leaders who have given them not very much in terms of the basic things that we all, as human beings, want in our lives. So while we're obsessed with this constitution, Iraqis now are not. Now this may change as we get up to the October 15th referendum and it's clear to all Iraqis what is at stake, but for the moment they haven't yet plugged in.

HANSEN: NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad.

Deborah, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thanks, Liane.

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