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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In a little less than three weeks, Iraqis are set to vote on a constitution. That document was arrived at only after months of wrangling and deadlines that were extended and extended again. Some Sunni Arab leaders still vow to work for the charter's defeat. They're angered by provisions that enshrine a decentralized, federalist state, specifically a Shiite autonomous zone in the South similar to the Kurdish region in the North. Now a report from the non-profit organization the International Crisis Group warns that the Iraqi constitution, as written, will push Iraq toward full-scale civil war. The Crisis Group says US intervention is needed immediately to broker a compromise on Sunni Arab concerns. Robert Malley is director of the Crisis Group's Middle East program.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Director, Middle East Program, International Crisis Group): A constitution is supposed to be a document that not only enshrines what the majority wants but also reassures the minority. It's supposed to be a document, as it in this country, that in some ways binds the hands of the majority. That's not the case in what has happened in Iraq. In fact, the whole process of setting up this constitution is going to take place strictly along sectarian lines, with Kurds and Shiites approving and Sunnis disapproving. So if, at the end of the day, you have a constitution that two out of the three major groups approve of but a significant one disapproves of, what precisely have we achieved?

BLOCK: Well, the language in this constitution is final. I mean, it's being printed up for distribution around the country. How do you figure that this US-brokered compromise that you're proposing would work?

Mr. MALLEY: It is probably too late now to mend the constitution. Only three weeks are left before the referendum. They have to distribute the constitution. And I also doubt that the administration would ever contemplate extending the timetable for the referendum and push it back after October 15th. Given that those two options seem to be off the table, the only one that we could see that remains is to try to get a political agreement between Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds over the main issues of concern to Sunni Arabs and commit beforehand that once the constitution is passed, either the new parliament will pass legislation that will address those concerns, or they will push for a constitutional amendment that will address those concerns. But, in any event, you need something public before October 15th, so that Sunni Arabs don't feel compelled to vote a constitution that they feel doesn't meet any of their basic interests.

BLOCK: But, again, this vote is less than three weeks away, and you want this to happen before that vote comes. Is there any sign that anybody on the US side of this equation thinks that your idea is a good one and is working to make it happen?

Mr. MALLEY: There was a sign--after the constitution was theoretically adopted, the US ambassador to Iraq said--hinted that it may not be entirely final. Other Iraqi politicians hinted to it as well. Now then we've had further steps with the parliament endorsing this constitution. But I think we've seen in Iraq that no deadline is ever final. And, in fact, if the United States were to make this push and if it could put sufficient pressure on its allies, something perhaps could happen.

BLOCK: How do you arrive at that conclusion that this constitution would actually fuel civil war in Iraq?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, a constitution is for keeps. So for Sunni Arabs who have invested in this process, if it passes, despite their overwhelming, perhaps even virtually unanimous, rejection, then what confidence will they have left in the political process? At stake right now is to try to divide the insurgents, the radical insurgents, from the mass of Sunni Arabs who may be sympathetic to the insurgents but really don't want to join it. This constitution and its passage along sectarian lines would have the exact opposite effect.

BLOCK: There would be voices who would say that this constitution really encapsulates the reality of the Iraqi state right now; that you seem to be trying to impose unity in a country where there really isn't any.

Mr. MALLEY: A degree of federalism is not something that needs to be opposed, as certainly degrees of decentralization that are perfectly acceptable. The problem is the way in which it was done and the outcome that it's going to result in. If, in fact, you're going to have a Kurdish entity which is virtually independent and a grand southern Shiite entity that is virtually independent, what does it leave for the Sunni Arabs? And it may reflect what a lot of people there want, although, again, it's unclear that they've had even a chance to think about it. I mean, they've only had three months to negotiate a constitution--think--compared to how much time we've had and other countries have had. But had there been a full-fledged debate, had there been more time, had we really tried to make this into a national compact and had the outcome been a consensus among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds, we may have had a very different result in terms of the substance of the constitution and yet still have it endorsed by a majority of Iraqis.

BLOCK: Robert Malley, thanks very much.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Robert Malley is director of the Middle East program for the International Crisis Group. He was with the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. There's a link to the Crisis Group's report at our Web site, npr.org.

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