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Sunni Arabs warn against new Iraq charter

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said on Tuesday that almost all issues dogging the draft Constitution are resolved, but Sunni Arabs warned it is divisive and will be rejected when put to the nation.

”We have agreed on 151 of the 153 Articles in the Constitution, including the federal status of the government and the status of regions and provinces,” Jaafari told a press conference.

He said issues concerning human rights, including women’s rights, have also been agreed upon.

”We have made an important stride,” the Shi’ite prime minister said.

In a nail-biting drama, Parliament on Monday received only an incomplete draft of the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein Constitution submitted under intense United States pressure but without the approval of the Sunni Arab minority.

The charter’s writers beat a midnight deadline by just a few minutes to present the Constitution that will shape the future of 27-million war-battered Iraqis and could pave the way for a withdrawal of foreign troops.

But several issues remained unresolved, including the mechanism for implementing federalism, the treatment of former Saddam regime officials, and how to divide authority between the presidency, Parliament and the government.

Negotiations will take place over the next three days, especially with Sunnis, to bridge remaining differences over the text, which must be approved in an October referendum.

Under stiff US pressure, the Shi’ites and Kurds apparently reached a compromise on issues including the political structure of Iraq and the relationship between religion and state.

But the Sunnis, the former elite under Saddam whose support is seen as vital in ending the raging insurgency, remained unmoved and warned on Tuesday that the charter in its current form will divide the country.

”The draft is divisive. It will divide the society as there are many negatives in it,” Sunni negotiator Saleh al-Motlag said. ”Ninety-nine percent of Sunnis are unhappy with it. It will fail during the referendum.”

But the Shi’ite head of the Constitution-drafting panel, Sheikh Humam Hammudi, rejected these concerns, saying Sunni negotiators do not necessarily reflect the wishes of the minority.

Sunnis oppose federalism, fearing a decentralised government will cut their share of the nation’s vast oil reserves, mainly concentrated in the Kurdish north and Shi’ite south.

The charter in Article 109 stipulates ”the oil and gas of all the regions belong to the entirety of the Iraqi people”, adding that the management of the resources should be with the central government in Baghdad and with the oil-producing regions.

”The revenues should be equitably distributed throughout the country according to the population size [of each region]”, states the Article.

Sunnis are rejecting the clause, but are politically weak, holding few seats in Parliament after largely boycotting the January elections.

Hammudi outlined his backing for a decentralised structure for Iraq.

”If [the government] had a say in every matter, it would become a new dictatorship,” he said. ”The ruler would become a dictator with the available pool of oil wealth.”

But Kurds also expressed some discontent with the compromise text.

”The document will be divisive as every Sunni is against it, Kurds are lukewarm in their response, while only the Shi’ites may have something to take home,” said one Kurdish source close to negotiations.

The US had pressured the Kurds to climb down on two key demands — self-determination and inclusion of oil-rich Kirkuk in their autonomous northern region, as well as softening its stand on the role of Islam.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the draft is widely agreed upon.

”The big majority of it has been agreed but three articles remain,” Talabani said. ”Now we will give a chance to members of the National Assembly to look at it and I hope within three days these problems will be solved.”

Meanwhile, US President George Bush praised the negotiations.

”The establishment of a democratic Constitution will be a landmark event in the history of Iraq and the history of the Middle East,” he said in a speech in Salt Lake City.

Iran hailed Iraq’s charter, saying it will improve ”security, peace and sovereignty” across the border. The US accuses Iran of smuggling weapons and insurgents across the border to fight the coalition forces in Iraq.

Japan, which has 600 troops in Iraq, called the draft an ”important step” and urged Iraqi leaders to sort out differences quickly.

Rebels killed five people on Tuesday, while Iraq’s Environment Minister, Narmine Othman, said she survived an ambush on Monday by gunmen in which her three bodyguards were wounded.

A US marine and a soldier were killed on Monday in Iraq, taking the US military losses to 1 866 according to a tally based on Pentagon figures. — Sapa-AFP

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