BAGHDAD,(AP) – A special session of Iraq”s parliament was called Wednesday to discuss a breakthrough on the constitution reached by Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish powerbrokers, reviving hopes of winning Sunni support for the charter in this weekend”s referendum.
But the National Assembly could have trouble forming a quorum since a monthlong legislative recess began Monday, and many legislators have returned to their provinces for Saturday”s important referendum vote and to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with their families.
It also was not clear whether the lawmakers who do attend the session would be asked to approve a final version of the draft constitution incorporating Tuesday”s last-minute compromises, or simply to discuss it. Either way, the legislative session could simply be a formality since the lawmakers generally follow their party leaders.
"We do not know whether we will be voting on the deal reached by the leaders of the main parties, or just being informed about it," said Shiite lawmaker Khalid al-Atiyah.
"The special session has been scheduled to begin at 7 o”clock tonight to give lawmakers in the provinces the time they need to return to Baghdad," he said in an interview.
To improve security for the referendum, a four-day national curfew also begins on Thursday, and a holiday has been called for the vote on Saturday.
When parliament met last Monday in an effort to strip former defense minister Hazem Shaalan of his immunity from prosecution over the alleged disappearance or misappropriation of $US1 billion in military procurement funds, too few legislators showed up for form a quorum.
In any case, the draft constitution already has been printed by the United Nations and millions of copies are being distributed to the public for the vote. Therefore, new additions cannot be included and would probably have to be announced to potential voters in the Iraqi press and television.
Meanwhile, Sunni-led insurgent groups continued their deadly campaign aimed at intimidating voters in the referendum. On Tuesday, militants used suicide bombings and other attacks to kill more than 50 people, raising Iraq”s death toll over the last 17 days to nearly 400.
The nation”s most feared insurgent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for Tuesday”s worst attack during which a suicide bomber plowed his vehicle into a crowded outdoor market in the northwestern town of Tal Afar, killing 30 Iraqi civilians and wounding 45. In an Internet statement the group said the attack was aimed at Iraqi police and Iraqi Army officers.
On Tuesday night, Iraqi negotiators reached the breakthrough deal on the constitution, and at least one Sunni Arab party said it would now urge its followers to approve the charter in Saturday”s referendum.
Under the deal, the two sides agreed on a mechanism to consider amending the constitution after it is approved in the nationwide vote. The next parliament, to be formed in December, will set up a commission to consider amendments, which would later have to be approved by parliament and submitted to another referendum. The agreement boosts the chances that the draft constitution will be passed in Saturday”s referendum.
Majority Shiite and Kurdish leaders support the draft, and the United States has been eager to see it approved to avert months more of political turmoil, delaying plans to start a withdrawal of U.S. forces. In return, the agreement guarantees Sunni Arabs the ability to try later to introduce major changes they want, aimed at reducing the autonomous powers that Shiites and Kurds would have under the federal system created by the charter, negotiators said.
"The important principle here is that this provides an assurance (to Sunnis) that this constitution is not the end of history but is subject to amendment," said Ridha Jawad Taqi of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shiite party in the government.
U.S. officials had pushed the three days of negotiations between Shiite and Kurdish leaders in the government and Sunni Arab officials. They concluded with marathon talks at the house of President Jalal Talabani late Tuesday.
A top Sunni negotiator, Ayad al-Samarraie of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said Tuesday the measure would allow it to "stop the campaign rejecting the constitution and we will call on Sunni Arabs to vote yes."
But other major Sunni parties were not present at the negotiations, and at least one senior Sunni leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, said he was not yet convinced by the measure. "The Islamic party was participating alone in these negotiations and making its own decisions," al-Mutlaq said. "This is strange because the Iraqi Islamic party does not represent all the Sunni Arabs but only a small percentage of them."
But the announcement was the first break in the ranks of Sunni Arab leaders and will likely deeply undermine the campaign to defeat the constitution at the polls.
That possibility was evident on Wednesday, when the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group that has called for a boycott in the referendum, seemed to be reconsidering that position.
"After the National Assembly”s special session, we will make our decision," Mohammad Bashar al-Faidhi, the group”s founder, said in an interview. "Generally speaking, our position to boycott the whole political process, but if something positive comes out of the session, then we might think in another way."
The agreement outlines four additions to the document considered Saturday that outline how future amendments will be made. The central addition allows the next parliament, which will be formed in Dec. 15 elections, to form the commission, which will have four months to consider changes to the constitution. The changes would be approved by the entire parliament, then a referendum would be held two months later. That is no guarantee that Sunnis will be able to make the changes they seek. They are likely to have a stronger representation in the next parliament, but would still face a strong Shiite and Kurdish majority that would likely oppose major changes. And the deal does not necessarily make it any easier for Sunnis to push through amendments, only guarantees them the opportunity to try.
Any changes apparently would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the parliament, just as is outlined in the constitution, before they can go to a referendum.
Sunnis fear that the draft constitution as it stands will fragment Iraq, because it allows Shiites and Kurds to create mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, leaving Sunnis in a poor central zone.
The other additions agreed on Tuesday include a statement stressing Iraqi unity and another states that the Arabic language should be used in the Kurdistan region, along with Kurdish, issues important to the Sunni Arabs. The fourth underlines that former members of Saddam Hussein”s ousted, Sunni-led Baath Party will only be prosecuted if they committed crimes.
Some moderate Sunni leaders once had positions in the Baath Party and fear being barred from politics by the De-Baathification process outlined in the constitution.