Sunnis Challenge Iraq's New Constitution

Minority Sunni Muslims are challenging the new Iraqi constitution, saying it will lead to more sectarian violence. The charter, outlining a more religious and less centralized Iraq, will be put to the people for an October vote.

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Iraq has a new constitution, at least for now. This document remains in dispute, even after being endorsed by the country's parliament. Iraq's president has presented the document to voters for their approval, but the outcome of a referendum in October is in doubt, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(Soundbite of people talking; music)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

On the front lawn of the president's house in Baghdad, Jalal Talabani, an Iraqi Kurd, said debate over the constitution had brought the country together.

Mr. JALAL TALABANI: I think this dialogue and discussion opened the way for strengthening the unity of Iraqi people.

AMOS: With the backdrop of Iraqi flags, a made-for-television set, Talabani was surrounded by more than 40 top government ministers and political leaders. However, only four Sunni Arabs attended the official event. Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament, said even he still had reservations.

Mr. HAJIM AL-HASSANI (Speaker of The Parliament): So I think this constitution has too much religion in it. When it comes to the rights of women, you know, it took a lot of the rights of the woman. But, in general, you also have other things, you know, good in this constitution.

AMOS: Sunnis on the negotiating committee took a tougher line. They denounced the document, predicting more violence. Sunni negotiator Fakhri al-Qaisi.

Have you accepted the constitution in the Assembly?

Mr. FAKHRI AL-QAISI (Sunni Negotiator): No, we will not accept it.

AMOS: Why?

Mr. AL-QAISI: There is ignorance to what Arab Sunni need for this constitution.

AMOS: Shiites and Kurds pushed through their version, despite pressure from the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who worked hard to bring Sunni concerns to the table.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD: And we brought enormous pressures to bear on the Shia list, to accommodate to the Sunni list.

AMOS: But in the end, Khalilzad failed to broker a deal that would have brought Sunnis on board, a key Washington policy goal.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Obviously, would have preferred for all these Sunnis to be enthusiastically embracing this. I mean, I'm not going to tell you otherwise.

AMOS: The new constitution outlines a radical change for Iraq and has set off strong emotions, not just with Sunnis. The document defines a country that is more religious than in Saddam's time and moves power away from the central government to the provinces. Kurdish and Shiite leaders, who support the constitution, have a strong interest in breaking with the past. But Sunnis fear it could divide the country. Secular Iraqis from all sects fear Iraq will become an Islamic state. For example, the constitution provides for clerics to sit on the highest judicial bodies. That is unsettling for Ghassan Al Attiyah, a political analyst.

Ms. GHASSAN AL ATTIYAH (Political Analyst): So for the first time, we have cleric, religious people deciding the legality of a law by a parliament, by elected people.

AMOS: It is Sunni leaders who have been the most adamant in calling on voters to reject the constitution, racing to register voters. Mishan al-Jubouri, a Sunni member of parliament, attended the ceremony at the president's house but stood in the back, away from the cameras.

Mr. MISHAN AL-JUBOURI (Parliament Member): I am not happy. I will ask my population to vote against that constitution.

AMOS: So what are you doing here?

Mr. AL-JUBOURI: We come here to cry, not to be happy.

AMOS: For Washington, the new constitution was a crucial step to get Sunni Arabs involved in the political process to break with the Sunni-led insurgency and set the stage for US troop withdrawal. The Sunni rejection is a setback. But US Ambassador Khalilzad says he will continue to meet with Sunni leaders and find ways to address their concerns.

Amb. KHALILZAD: Whatever they say today, we'll not react in anger to that. We will be engaged and will work with them.

AMOS: Winning enough votes to past this historic constitution may be as difficult as writing it.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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