(Some) Sunnis Get on Board

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DEAL: Iraqi Islamic Party's General Secretary Tareq al-Hashemi

In what has been hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, one of Iraq's major Sunni groups, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has dropped its opposition to the proposed constitution, pledging to join with Shi'ite and Kurdish parties in campaigning for its passage in Saturday's referendum. But other Sunni parties say the Iraqi Islamic Party has betrayed them and have pledged to continue to campaign for its defeat.

The deal, announced Wednesday in a special session of Iraq's National Assembly, allows for another constitutional committee to be formed four months after the election of a permanent legislature in December. The new committee would propose changes to the constitution followed by another referendum on those changes two months later. The constitution originally barred amendments for eight years.

Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians agreed that the new committee would next April amend the constitution to emphasize the unity of Iraq, soften prohibitions against former members of the Ba'ath Party from participating in public life if they have not been convicted of a crimeand add Arabic as an official language in the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.

This was enough to bring the Iraqi Islamic Party on board, and spokesman Ayad Samarrai said the group would urge its followers to vote "yes" in the referendum on Saturday. If Sunnis vote in the December election, the permanent National Assembly would likely have many more Sunnis than the 17 elected in the January poll, which was largely boycotted by Sunnis. Sunnis have been signing up to vote in this week's referendum and the December elections in large numbers, and Sunni political leaders have pledged to run a full slate of candidates. The Iraqi Islamic Party is gambling that increased numbers in the Assembly will translate to increased influence when it comes time to renegotiate the constitution.

Other Sunnis politicians remained adamant that the constitution should be voted down. "This is bad for the Iraqis," said Saleh Mutlaq, an influential member of the National Dialogue Council, a rival Sunni group that includes many former Ba'athists. "This deal will keep the constitution as it is, and this constitution will break up this country." He said the National Dialogue Council would continue to urge a "no" vote on the constitution despite the new stance of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which Mutlaq branded as a "betrayal" of the Sunnis. He hinted that the Dialogue Council would consider excluding the Iraqi Islamic Party from its fractious coalition.

Whereas the elections have clearly identified the representative parties among the Kurds and Shiites, it remains unclear how much influence each of the various Sunni parties and organizations actually wield over the constituency for which they claim to speak. It remains to be seen whether the latest agreement will result in a higher turnout or yes-vote on Saturday.

Also unclear is whether the parliamentary review committee proposed in the latest deal would restrict itself to just the few points agreed on Wednesday, or whether the entire document will be up for renegotiation. Wednesday's agreement may have made the "permanent" constitution — on which Iraqis are to vote Saturday, although most have yet to see a copy — quite temporary, and merely postponed confronting what may be intractable differences over federalism and the distribution of natural resources for another six months. Iraq's basic stew of ethnic and sectarian distrust isn't going to change in that time period and it's unlikely that the insurgency that has destabilized the country and besieged the Iraqi government will abate. Last week, in Senate testimony, U.S. generals in Iraq disputed oft-repeated predictions from the Bush Administration that the violence would diminish after a permanent constitution is established.

Still, the Americans have been at the center of the six weeks of talks aimed at ensuring the constitutional process includes Sunnis. Participants in the negotiations said the U.S. embassy was in the thick of things, bringing the Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs together to get them to agree to changes in a constitution that, legally, was to have been finalized Aug. 28. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who in his former post as envoy to Afghanistan had a reputation as a dealmaker and arm-twister, was instrumental.

"Khalilzad has been the main element in all of the meetings," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian who was present at many of the meetings. Othman has often criticized the Administration for rushing the process to the detriment of the Iraqis. "For [the Americans], it's very important to declare that Sunnis — at least some of them — have agreed. It's a victory for them, for their policy, for the administration."