BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -The U.S.-brokered deal to win Sunni support for Iraq”s draft constitution, while boosting the charter”s chances in this weekend”s referendum, delays the basic problems of power-sharing among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The last-minute compromise is just another stop in a tortured process going back to the early days of the U.S. occupation. In 2003, the newly empowered Shiite majority forced Washington to abandon its blueprints for the charter to ensure its domination.
Shiites and Kurds then formalized their power in elections in January that were boycotted by Sunni Arabs, who hold only 17 seats in the 275-member parliament.
Now the Sunnis are fighting for political relevance.
"The dilemma we are living today is the result of not participating in the last elections," Vice-President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, told reporters.
The agreement sealed Wednesday by parliament only papered over the cleavages in a religiously, ethnically and culturally mixed society. It has also sown discord among the powerful Sunni minority, which is now split over the document, with factions trading charges of selling out for political gain.
The process has left Iraqis confused, divided and wearied by a demanding, U.S.-charted timetable for the country”s passage to full democratic rule.
By the end of 2005, Iraqis will have gone to the polls three times — two general elections and a referendum. They have watched politicians get caught up in weeks of horse-trading over prized Cabinet posts and endured another year of lengthy power cuts and fuel shortages. All this while a Sunni-led insurgency continued to harvest lives with a daily fare of violence.
After the accord, several top Sunni groups, including the National Council for Dialogue and the Association of Muslim Scholars, said they were maintaining their call for a "no" vote. The association went further and gave its supporters the option to boycott altogether.
"The agreement gave legitimacy to a pathetic political process as well as to the policies of President Bush," said Muthana Harith al-Dhari, the association”s spokesman.
One insurgent group, the Army of the Victorious Sect, declared leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the only Sunni group that accepted the agreement, "apostates" and threatened to kill them, Al-Jazeera television reported.
On the whole, the deal does not tackle main Sunni demands — a clear assertion of Iraq”s Arab identity and curbing what Sunni leaders see as excessive provisions for federalism that will weaken the central government and cause the eventual breakup of Iraq.
"Federalism in this constitution will lead to the breakup of Iraq and a civil war," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni Arab politician who heads the Council for Dialogue, an umbrella of political, religious and tribal groups.
"This document is a minefield. It will blow up anytime," he said.
Al-Mutlaq and other Sunni Arab leaders said the deal, endorsed by parliament in an upbeat ceremony complete with a live musical performance, would weaken their campaign to get out the "no" vote.
They saw the Islamic Party”s role as a repeat of its acceptance in 2003 of a seat on a Governing Council whose 25 members were hand-picked by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq”s U.S. governor at the time. That move undermined the party”s standing and antagonized many Sunni Arabs embittered by their loss of prestige when their patron, Saddam Hussein, was ousted.
In theory, the compromise gives Sunni Arabs a window to make changes in the constitution after its adoption in Saturday”s vote. It empowers the next parliament to adopt changes by a simple majority and then put to a vote in a nationwide referendum.
Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of Iraq”s 26 million people, are not expected to win more than 50 of parliament”s 275 seats in the general election slated for December. This gives the Shiites and Kurds a veto on any changes they don”t agree to.
As in Saturday”s vote, any amendments could be rejected by voters if they fail to win a simple majority or if two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote "no."
The Kurds are the overwhelming majority in three Iraqi provinces that make up an autonomous enclave they so jealously guard. The Shiites are dominant in at least eight others. The Sunni Arabs are the majority in four, but three of these have sizable Shiite and Kurdish communities.
"The Islamic Party has surrendered its chance to vote down the constitution in three Sunni provinces and now that same weapon will be used against it when they try to pass amendments," said Adnan al-Duleimi, another senior Sunni Arab politician.