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Iraq's leaders agree to changes in proposed constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Key Iraqi government leaders agreed Tuesday to change some of the most controversial points in the proposed constitution, and the nation's largest Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that if the National Assembly passed the changes, it would ask its followers to vote for the document.

The deal could mark a breakthrough in gaining broader support for the constitution in Saturday's referendum, and raises hopes that Iraq's struggle toward democracy could be taking an important step at a time when the country has appeared to be slipping deeper into violent conflict between minority Sunni and majority Shiite Muslims.

The agreement came on a day when insurgent attacks killed at least 54 people in a new upswing of violence. There are hopes that passage of the constitution will undercut the insurgency eventually.

But it's unclear how much influence the Iraqi Islamic Party will have with Sunni voters, and the proposed changes could weaken the document by making it appear easily subject to further change.

The leaders agreed that four months after a new National Assembly is elected in December, the governing body will create a committee to propose changes to the constitution. Another referendum could follow next year, said Tariq al-Hashimi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party. The originally proposed constitution barred amendment for eight years.

"Now we have made all the items in the constitution vulnerable to change," al-Hashimi said. "We managed to move some items to the next parliament."

Because they boycotted the January elections, Sunnis have had little representation during this National Assembly. Some Sunni leaders now view that boycott as a mistake and expect to gain a stronger presence in the new National Assembly.

The proposed changes reflect Sunni demands. The constitution would call for a unified Iraq. Only members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who'd been convicted of crimes could be excluded from the new government, said Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite National Assembly member, opening the door to thousands of Sunnis.

Arabic will be an official language in the Kurdish region, which some Sunni leaders wanted on the grounds that a national language represents a unified country.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, played a key role in Tuesday's discussions, some said, because he facilitated the meeting, which otherwise probably wouldn't have taken place. Throughout the week, he'd encouraged the Shiite and Kurdish leaders to reach out to the Sunnis.

British officials and members of the United Nations also were at the meeting.

Leaders of the National Assembly appeared on television Tuesday night and asked the governing body to hold an emergency session Wednesday evening to formally endorse the changes. Two-thirds of the members must approve the new document.

President Jalal Talabani will formally announce the proposed changes Wednesday.

Sunnis have complained vociferously that the new constitution was written largely without their input. They said that instead of uniting the country, the document excluded Sunnis and could fuel the mostly Sunni insurgency.

They'd objected to provisions decentralizing power to regional governments, allocating natural resources and on the treatment of Baathists. They'd also said the document must call for a unified Iraq because they feared that federalism could create several states split along sectarian lines.

The push by American officials and the willingness of the Shiites and Kurds to make concessions suggested that many worried that the document was too divisive. Up until this week, Shiite and Kurdish leaders had said the constitution wouldn't change and that it was crafted democratically.

After Tuesday's session, Ayad al-Samaraee, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the changes would create stability.

"A balanced National Assembly and constitution will slow down the violence," al-Samaraee said.

It was unclear Tuesday night what effect the proposed changes would have on the referendum. And the Sunni voice is fractious, making it unclear whether other Sunni groups would encourage their followers to vote for the document. Even with a new election for a National Assembly, the majority Shiites are expected to dominate, leaving the Sunnis as a minority.

The United Nations already has distributed 5 million copies of the constitution for residents to read before Saturday's vote, so it will be difficult for voters to review the changes.

The group of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders—representing the four largest political parties—reached the agreement during an all-day session at Talabani's home, a session American officials here had strongly encouraged the leaders to hold, several attendees said.

Iraqis are celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in which they fast until sunset. When government officials couldn't reach an agreement during the day, they stopped to break their fast and met again. They came to a consensus around 10 p.m.


(Mukhtar is a special correspondent.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.