BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Iraq”s Kurdish minority may give up its demand for the right to secede in order to enable a compromise on a new constitution, a senior Kurdish official said Saturday, as protests against a proposed federal charter continued for a second day.
Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party of Iraq”s President Jalal Talabani, said all parties were showing flexibility in order to finish drafting the constitution.
"As for the self-determination for the Kurds, this issue did not enjoy the support of Sunnis or Shiites and we almost gave up this demand," he said.
The Kurds have enjoyed de-facto independence since 1991. If they drop their demand to guarantee the right of self-determination — a codeword for eventual secession that goes beyond mere federalism — it would represent a major concession and would remove an obstacle to agreement on the charter by next Monday”s deadline.
The other main outstanding dispute concerns the role of Islam in the new state, in which the Kurds and secular groups are pitted against Islamist parties representing Iraq”s Shiite majority.
"As for the issue of Islam”s role, negotiations are still underway," Bakhtiyar, told The Associated Press from the Kurdish city of Sulemaniyah.
On Saturday, leaders of all factions continued a series of meetings in Baghdad”s fortified Green Zone. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni representative on the drafting committee, said "deep differences" had emerged after Shiites demanded that the new charter should explicitly state that the decrees of their religious leadership were sacred — something both the Sunnis and Kurds oppose.
As the Monday deadline to finish the constitution approached, Sunni Arabs and some Shiites rallied in Baghdad and elsewhere Friday to protest calls for a federated state.
On Saturday, about 300 Arabs in the northern oil city of Kirkuk demonstrated against federalism, chanting "Yes to unity, no to federalism."
"We are against federalism (because) we believe that federalism is a step toward separation," said Mohammed Khalil, an Arab city council member.
In the 1980s, former leader Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk, and replaced them with Arab settlers. The city, which the Kurds seek to incorporate into their province, has been the scene of interethnic tensions the past two years.
According to Article 58 in the interim constitution, all Iraqis, including Kurds, displaced under Saddam”s regime have the right to return to their homes or receive compensation. Political leaders appear to have agreed on implementing Article 58, before general elections are held on Dec. 15.
In addition to federalism, Islam and the future of Kirkuk, other stumbling blocks to a new constitutional pact are the status of women — with Shiites seeking to roll back the rights granted to women by Saddam”s Baathist regime — and the division of Iraq”s potentially vast oil revenues.
The United States believes the key to defeating the Sunni-dominated insurgency is to encourage an inclusive political process that would encourage disaffected Sunni Arabs to lay down arms.
On Friday, a Kurdish official who took part in the negotiations said the United States was pressuring the Kurds to accept demands of Shiites and Sunnis on the role of Islam in government in order to reach agreement.
The entire process hinges on the success of the drafting committee in producing a constitution acceptable to all Iraqi communities by Monday”s deadline. If parliament approves the draft, it goes to voters for ratification in October.
On Saturday, leaders of all factions continued a series of meetings in Baghdad”s fortified Green Zone regarding the new charter, officials said.
In recent weeks, various Sunni groups — which boycotted January”s parliamentary elections — have been urging fellow Sunnis to vote in the referendum and a general election planned for December. The voter-registration deadline is Sept. 1.
The boycott left the once-dominant community with few seats in a parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds, and reduced its influence in the political maneuvering surrounding the draft charter.
In other developments, Ramadi police reported on Friday that U.S. warplanes bombed a house in the Khalaf district, destroying it but causing no casualties. Police Capt. Nassir Al-Alousi said the house was empty at the time of the air strike because the family that lived there had left a few hours earlier.
A statement released by the U.S. military Saturday said only that Air Force F-16s and Royal Air Force GR-4s had "provided close air support to coalition troops" in the Khalaf area. It gave no further details.