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Iraqi lawmakers OK compromise deal

Some Sunni groups still oppose charter

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi lawmakers agreed yesterday to change the country's draft constitution, just three days before it goes to the voters in a referendum, in an effort to win over the disaffected Sunni Arab minority and dampen the insurgency.

To clinch the agreement, lawmakers agreed to put off the most contentious disputes -- over the powers of federal regions and the control of natural resources -- until next year, and made it easier to amend the constitution in later negotiations.

But the groups who claim to represent the Sunnis whom US and Iraqi officials are most anxious to win over -- those who distrust the US-backed government and passively or actively support the insurgency -- said they would still oppose the charter and slammed the deal as a political trick.

Under the new draft, the entire constitution would be reviewed by the new legislature to be elected in December, giving Sunnis who have so far boycotted the political process a new incentive to vote in that election. During its first few months, the new legislature could propose changes with a majority vote instead of the two-thirds majority originally required.

Amid the political maneuvering, violence continued yesterday. A suicide bomber attacked Iraqi Army recruits, killing 30 in Tal Afar, a town near the Syrian border where US troops recently battled insurgents, a day after a similar bombing there killed 24.

Iraqi politicians expressed hope that the constitutional revisions, struck after a week of intense negotiations involving US Embassy officials, would encourage more people to defy violence to take part in the referendum Saturday and in the vote in December.

''This moves the disagreements to the next parliament," Ghazi al-Yawer, one of the few Sunni members of the current National Assembly, told reporters. ''It's a motivation for people to participate in the next elections so we can amend what we need to amend."

Government officials and the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni political party that has been most open to cooperating with the United States, praised the breakthrough. At a gala ceremony inside the US-guarded Green Zone that culminated with children waving plastic bouquets to the piped-in strains of the Iraqi national anthem, President Jalal Talabani, a top leader of the de facto autonomous Kurdish region, said the agreement would ''ensure" Iraq's unity.

National Assembly speaker Hajim al-Hasani, who broke with the Islamic Party last year after refusing to condemn US military actions in Sunni areas, declared: ''The fabric of Iraq is a strong fabric, a beautiful and colorful fabric filled with love and compassion."

But hard-line Sunnis who have sometimes claimed to have the ear of insurgents, including a powerful group of Sunni clerics, slammed the deal.

''We are even more determined now to vote no," said Hussein al-Falluji, a member of the Hewar, or Dialogue, Council, which includes former Ba'athists whom Iraqi and US officials have tried to pull into the political process. ''We cannot show two faces to our people."

With the agreement yesterday, the Iraqi Islamic Party reversed its position on the constitution. It had enthusiastically campaigned for Sunnis to reject the charter to show their clout at the polls in the runup to the December election and to deal a blow to a government that it said mistreated Sunnis.

Now the party is touting the concessions it won: In addition to lifting an eight-year ban on changing basic points in the constitution, the new draft includes new language guaranteeing Iraq's ''unity" and provides for Arabic as well as Kurdish to be an official language in the Kurdish region.

The party is also urging Sunni voters to support the constitution and then turn out strongly for legislative elections in December. The new assembly, it argues, will have more clout to revise the constitution as Sunnis want.

If two-thirds of voters in three or more provinces reject the constitution on Saturday, it must be scrapped and a new assembly elected to draft a new one. Sunnis predominate in four provinces, but would have to turn out strongly to reach a two-thirds majority.

It is unclear how much influence the Islamic Party has on Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

The party's last-minute call for Sunnis to vote last January went largely unheeded; most obeyed the cleric group's call for a boycott or stayed away from the polls for fear of insurgent retribution. As a result, Sunnis are underrepresented in the National Assembly that drafted the charter.

Sunnis are most worried about the provisions in the constitution that would allow federal regions to increase their autonomy, measures that appeal to the oil-rich Kurdish north and Shi'ite south but not to the western and central Sunni areas, which have fewer resources.

The Shi'ite parties downplayed the concessions they made, saying they wanted to be inclusive but that the changes to the draft were not fundamental.

US negotiators persuaded holdout Shi'ites to accept the deal, according to Ali Dabagh, a top Shi'ite legislator, and Alaa Makki, an Islamic Party leader who noted that a divisive or failed constitution would be disaster for President Bush.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said yesterday that he had only facilitated Iraqi talks. But he said the deal was a step toward defusing the insurgency, which has killed nearly 2,000 Americans. ''It's a military necessity to win the population away from the insurgency," he said.

Sunnis, meanwhile, are divided on how far to get on board. The Dialogue Council and 18 other groups issued a statement calling the deal ''a ploy to persuade people not to vote no to the ethnic and sectarian racist constitution."

Alaa Makki of the Islamic Party said that even if Sunnis vote yes as he urges, the real test is in December. ''We should prove that we are a real political force," he said.

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