By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
August 26, 2005
"It's better to continue the negotiating process than sow the seeds for civil war, which is the alternative," said Nile Gardiner of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Every effort must be made to hammer out an agreement by all sides because the alternative is bloodshed and endless violence."
The continuing violence has implications for U.S. forces in Iraq, raising the prospect of escalation before the constitution referendum that is supposed to take place Oct. 15. The Defense Department has already announced it is sending 1,500 more soldiers to Iraq, in addition to the 138,000 already there, to improve security before the vote.
"We are witnessing the death throes of Sunni power in Iraq," said Gardiner. "They face stark choices."
Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population and who are centered largely in central Iraq, have lost the hold on power they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein. In the three-way negotiations with majority Shiites and the Kurds, who also make up nearly 20 percent of the population, the Sunnis find themselves on the losing end of debates on the committee formed to write a permanent constitution. One major dispute is over how much autonomy each group will get under a federalist system that both Shiites and Kurds advocate but that Sunnis object to.
Paul Williams, an American University law professor who was an adviser in early rounds of Iraqi constitutional talks, said triangular talks are inherently unstable. "Two sides will gang up on the third ... and the Sunnis are seeing this," he said.
While optimistic that a solution can still be found, Williams said the negotiators are trying out political muscles they couldn't use under Hussein's dictatorship and are testing the strength of their various blocs. "They are trying to build consensus and tending to their constituencies and testing political strength and using the process to determine their strength," Williams said.
Complicating the situation was a spasm of violence this week among Shiite Muslims, who account for about 60 percent of Iraq's population. The Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and another Shiite militia loyal to the government had a deadly shootout in the holy city of Najaf. The Shiite vs. Shiite violence takes place against a background of a grinding Sunni-backed insurgency.
Kathleen Ridolfo, an analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which operates Radio Free Iraq - which broadcasts 10 hours a day inside Iraq and is staffed by Iraqi journalists - said of al-Sadr, "In effect, he has hijacked the process ... He is doing the Sunnis' work for them." As evidence, she cited his attempts to upset the constitutional process, which he views as illegitimate because it is being carried out under the U.S. occupation and because U.S. officials, including Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, have been deeply involved in the negotiations.
If the Sunnis don't support the proposed constitution, they could try to defeat it at the polls by a getting a two-thirds no vote in at least three of 18 of Iraq's provinces. Sunnis constitute a majority in four provinces.
Ridolfo said problems with the constitutional process were predictable: "It was to be expected because a constitution could not be written in three months" in a country where competitive ethnic and religious blocs are vying for influence and violence continues by opponents of the U.S. military presence.
The Heritage Foundation's Gardiner said more U.S. and British troops may be needed to keep the lid on both before the Oct. 15 vote and the scheduled Dec. 15 elections for a permanent National Assembly.
"It's increasingly likely we'll see a lot more military action in coming months as the Sunni opposition becomes increasingly violent. The United States may have to commit more forces to the Sunni homeland," he said.
Neil Kritz, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's rule of law program, said that even if the constitution goes before voters without full Sunni agreement, talks can continue before the Oct. 15 vote. "Additional negotiations could go on around the country, and the National Assembly could revise the final draft to reflect a broader agreement. This is not necessarily the last chapter before Oct. 15," Kritz said.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that the Iraqi negotiators deserve credit for what they have accomplished and should continue working.
"It's no small feat to try to deal with these - the fundamental, weighty issues about the future of a country of millions of people under the klieg lights of television cameras and the Internet and global 24-hour cable news," he said. "I think that the progress that the Iraqis have made to this point and the process that they have followed to this point has really been pretty extraordinary."
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