RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Just days before Iraqis are to vote on a proposed constitution, Shiites, Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians have agreed to revise the document with the promise that more amendments may be discussed after parliamentary elections in December. Some prominent Sunni Arab leaders who had planned to urge a no vote now say they will support the draft. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad. Hello, Anne.
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
MONTAGNE: This sounds like at least a major breakthrough. Is it? And what are the changes?
GARRELS: Well, first, there was some tweaking of clauses of concern. Instead of a blanket condemnation of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party, new language will make it clearer that not all former members will be blacklisted, only those who committed crimes. This is important because many Sunnis who had been members of the party believe the original draft was aimed at locking them out of the public sector, public-sector employment and politics. Second, there's new language stressing Iraq's unity and Arabic is now to be an official language in the Kurdish north. Now these changes don't deal with the Sunni Arabs' big concern, federalism. They fear provisions allowing Shiites and Kurds to create mini states in the oil-rich north and south will deprive them of revenues and lead to a breakup of the country. But instead of having to wait eight years to challenge the constitution, as originally stated, a parliamentary committee can now meet after December elections to consider amendments.
MONTAGNE: And how big a role did the US play in these last-minute negotiations?
GARRELS: A big role. The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been shepherding these discussions for several weeks and they intensified in the past few days. US officials were urging Iraq's political leaders to make concessions because they feared if Sunnis felt locked out, they would lose faith in the political process and more would turn to violence, prolonging the US military's role here. They hoped that this now gives Sunni Arabs a much greater reason to participate in politics, arguing the more seats Sunni Arabs win in the parliament in the future, the better their chances of changing things.
Now remember, the Sunnis boycotted last January's elections and are underrepresented in the current interim parliament, which wrote the constitution. But even if there are more Sunni Arabs next time, Sunni politician Hajim Hassani, the speaker of the parliament, acknowledged today that Sunnis are still going to face a strong Shiite and Kurdish majority that will resist any big changes, especially those provisions for federalism. Nonetheless, he said this does give a chance for those who felt locked out of the constitution-writing process to execute their rights in the future. He says Sunnis will no longer be able to say this was forced on them. So to sum up, the deal reached doesn't necessarily make it more likely changes will be made, but it does guarantee Sunni Arabs the opportunity to challenge the constitution sooner rather than later.
MONTAGNE: And how about Sunni Arabs in general? Can you tell how much support this deal has among them?
GARRELS: It's really too early to tell. There are still meetings today to clarify the changes, which haven't been announced publicly. While the Iraqi Islamic Party has indicated it will now support the constitution, other Sunnis who weren't party to the back-room talks are still talking about a boycott or a no vote, and this includes the influential Muslim Scholars Association. With only three days left before the referendum, officials say the changes, you know, have to be announced on TV and radio. It does look, though, like this will undercut Sunni efforts to muster the necessary two-thirds in three provinces to kill the constitution.
MONTAGNE: Well, this being a back-room deal, as you put it, what about the Iraqi National Assembly? Does it have any say in this?
GARRELS: That's also not clear. Some say yes, some say no. The speaker has called a special meeting for tonight. He says it's only necessary to read out the changes. Some members of the National Assembly dispute this.
MONTAGNE: Anne, thanks very much.
GARRELS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad.
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