Iraqi Legislators Approve Compromise Deal
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Iraqi lawmakers were called to a special session of the National Assembly tonight to hear details of last-minute constitutional compromises. The changes are meant to reassure Sunni Arabs and gain their support before the national referendum on the constitution in just two days. Meantime, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged Iraqis to vote in favor of the constitution, and the country's leading political figures--including Kurds, Shiites and Sunni--hailed the amendments to the draft constitution as evidence that different groups can work together in Iraq and build bridges. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from the Convention Center in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
One after another, leaders from Iraq's key constituencies stood up to praise each other and their ability to work problems through by dialogue. And by all accounts, these were tough negotiations. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and a key figure in the backroom talks, called this a national day of consensus. Now the National Assembly was not called to vote on the changes. With more than half the members present, the amendments were simply considered adopted. President Talabani declared to the assembled there were no longer reasons to vote against the constitution.
And while some Sunni parties--the Iraqi Islamic Party key among them--have said they now will support it, some still reject the document and many haven't made their views known. But as a sign of dangers to come, the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters were destroyed tonight in Fallujah. But it looks like whatever chances the Sunni Arabs had to defeat the constitution have now disappeared.
NORRIS: Could you give up details on these changes that were made to the constitution?
GARRELS: Well, there were clarifications of some clauses of concern to Sunnis. Iraqi unity was reinforced, Arabic was established as an official language in Kurdistan, and former members of the Baath Party were assured mere membership was no grounds for prosecution; everybody gave a little.
But these changes don't deal with the Sunni Arabs' big concern, provisions for federalism, which could deprive them of oil revenues and, they fear, lead to a breakup of the country. However, instead of having to wait eight years to challenge the constitution, by which time oil-rich Kurdish and Shiite regions would long be formed, a parliamentary committee can now meet after December national elections to consider changes.
NORRIS: So from what I understand, it doesn't guarantee that they can make changes; it just says that they can try. Is there any reason to believe that they'd have an easier time trying to make these changes the next time around?
GARRELS: Not entirely. I mean, if more Sunni Arabs participate in the political process, as is now hoped, they'll have more seats than they do now. But the fact of the matter is they're a minority, something they have trouble coming to terms with, and they will continue to face strong opposition from the Shiites and the Kurds, who will resist any changes to the provisions on federalism.
But what tonight really did was shift the focus from the constitution to the December national elections, which, assuming the constitution passes, will elect a permanent government instead of another interim one. Splits in the Sunnis have become clear; they need to look for political allies, as does the secular middle, which was defeated last time by a Shiite coalition with a conservative religious bent. That coalition is not as tight as it was, so, you know, there's room for political maneuvering now.
NORRIS: Anne, what role did the US play in these backroom talks?
GARRELS: Well, according to the political players here tonight, a very big one, with American Ambassador Khalilzad forcefully and relentlessly putting forward rationales for compromise. Tonight, Ambassador Khalilzad said he thinks this is a step in the right direction to win people over from the insurgents because, he added, the insurgents will not be defeated by the military alone.
NORRIS: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad.
Anne, thanks so much.
GARRELS: Thank you.
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