Saturday, August 20, 2005


US concedes ground to Islamists on Iraqi law

Reuters - U.S. diplomats have conceded ground to Islamists on the role of religion in Iraq, negotiators said on Saturday as they raced to meet a 48-hour deadline to draft a constitution under intense U.S. pressure.

U.S. diplomats, who have insisted the constitution must enshrine ideals of equal rights and democracy, declined comment.

Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish negotiators all said there was accord on a bigger role for Islamic law than Iraq had before.

But a secular Kurdish politician said Kurds opposed making Islam "the", not "a", main source of law -- changing current wording -- and subjecting all legislation to a religious test.

"We understand the Americans have sided with the Shi'ites," he said. "It's shocking. It doesn't fit American values. They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state ... I can't believe that's what the Americans really want or what the American people want."

Washington, with 140,000 troops still in Iraq, has insisted Iraqis are free to govern themselves but made clear it will not approve the kind of clerical rule seen in Shi'ite Iran, a state U.S. President George W. Bush describes as "evil".

U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been guiding intensive meetings since parliament averted its own dissolution on Monday by giving constitution drafters another week to resolve crucial differences over regional autonomy and division of oil revenues.

Failing to finish by midnight on August 22 could provoke new elections and, effectively, a return to the drawing board for the entire constitutional process.

But a further extension may be more likely, as Washington insists the charter is key to its strategy to undermine the Sunni revolt and leave a new Iraqi government largely to fend for itself after U.S. troops go home.

An official of one of the main Shi'ite Islamist parties in the interim government confirmed the deal on law and Islam.

It was unclear what concessions the Shi'ites may have made, but it seemed possible their demands for Shi'ite autonomy in the oil-rich south, pressed this month by Islamist leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, may be watered down in the face of Sunni opposition.

Sunni Arab negotiator Saleh al-Mutlak also said a deal was struck which would mean parliament could pass no legislation that "contradicted Islamic principles". A constitutional court would rule on any dispute on that, the Shi'ite official said.

"The Americans agreed, but on one condition -- that the principles of democracy should be respected," Mutlak said.

"We reject federalism," he repeated, underlining continued Sunni opposition to Hakim's demands. Hundreds demonstrated in the Sunni city of Ramadi on Saturday, echoing Mutlak's views.

He urged Sunnis, dominant under Saddam Hussein but who have largely shunned politics and, in some cases, taken up arms in revolt, to vote in an October referendum to back a constitution.

Other Sunni leaders are also encouraging their followers to register for the referendum, in part to ensure they can block the constitution if they chose to oppose it down the road. If two thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote no in October's referendum, the constitution is rejected.

The Kurdish negotiator rushed to make clear his outrage at a deal on Islam: "We don't want dictatorship of any kind, including any religious dictatorship.

"Perhaps the Americans are negotiating to get a deal at any cost, but we will not accept a constitution at any cost," he said, adding that he believed Shi'ite leaders had used the precedent of Afghanistan to win the ambassador's support.

Khalilzad, who has said there will be "no compromise" on equal rights for women and minorities, helped draft a constitution in his native Afghanistan that declared it an "Islamic Republic" in which no law could contradict Islam.

It also, however, contained language establishing equal rights for women and protecting religious minorities.

About a dozen senior leaders, representing the Shi'ite Islamist-led government, secular Shi'ite former prime minister Iyad Allawi, Kurds and Sunnis, were in talks on Saturday.

Sunni leaders say they are resigned to the Kurds maintaining their current autonomy in the north -- though not to the Kurds extending their territory into the northern oilfields -- but said they would not tolerate an autonomous Shi'ite region.

Ethnic tensions in the northern oil city of Kirkuk spilt on to the streets on Saturday as hundreds of Arabs demonstrated against federalism -- code for Kurdish ambitions to annex Kirkuk -- and gunmen shot up the office of a Kurdish political party for the second time in a month, wounding three guards.

In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. South of the capital, a tribal sheikh was kidnapped in the latest sign of tribal tensions. Many tribes cut across sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shi'ites members.