Counting on a Constitution; Iraqi Panel Tries to Balance Interests, Foster Peace

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Iraq's best hope for quelling the insurgency and ending sectarian violence might rest with the 71 politicians assigned to draft a permanent constitution for the country.

The addition today of 15 Sunni Arabs to the constitutional committee and 10 more to a consultative committee gives Iraqis hope that the constitution can be completed by the Aug. 15 deadline and will foster national reconciliation.

An inclusive constitutional process is a way to win over Sunnis to the new government and might be the only means to bring stability to Iraq, analysts and U.S. policy-makers said.

"The January election was a baby step," said Robert C. Blitt, legal-policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who served as an adviser on the constitution. He called the document "a departure point for Iraqi democracy and first step toward legitimacy for the government."

Reaching out to Sunnis

U.S. officials are pushing for the constitution, called the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), to be finished on deadline so the momentum toward independence can bolster the Iraqi government and discredit the insurgents.

But a growing number of people inside and outside the country caution against working too quickly. Some fear that rushing work on the constitution could undermine the nascent democracy and further alienate Sunni Muslims.

If the constitutional committee doesn't produce a draft by August, it has the option of delaying the constitution by six months.

"If it is jammed through by mid-August, I don't think that ordinary Sunnis will be prepared to buy into it as their constitution," said Noah Feldman, a professor at the New York University School of Law who advised Iraqi drafters. "If we see a six-month delay and serious debate over what it should really look like, then Sunnis will believe that they were really involved."

Previously, only two Sunnis sat on the drafting committee, where membership was based on the number of seats each party held in the National Assembly. It consists of 28 members of the Shi'ite United Iraq Alliance, 15 Kurds, eight members of the Sunni-Shi'ite coalition of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and four seats filled by a Turkmen, a Christian, another Sunni and a Communist.

"One of the biggest challenges is for Iraqis to find an identity that isn't tied to ethnicity," said Tad Stahnke, deputy director for policy of the religious freedom panel.

"We hope the constitutional process will lead them to think of themselves as Iraqis rather than different groups and winners and losers," Mr. Stahnke added.

Role of Islam

The first section of the constitution, which will make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the document, has been resolved, said Fuad Masum, deputy chairman of the committee.

But the most contentious issues - such as the role Islam will play and how power will be divided between the regions and central government - still have to be negotiated. The committee works on consensus, and no voting will take place, leading many to fear that the addition of Sunnis makes meeting the deadline more difficult.

If the parties agree on the wording of the constitution, it will be submitted to the National Assembly and then be put to a vote in an Oct. 15 national referendum. If it is approved by the national referendum, national elections would be conducted in December under the new constitution.

One article in the TAL specifies that if two-thirds of the population in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the constitution, it will not take effect.

"No one should view the constitution as a done deal," said Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Policy Institute and former leading Iraq analyst at the State Department. "If it is vetoed, we go all the way back to the beginning."

The role that Islam will have in the new constitution is an essential aspect in the jockeying among politicians over how Islamic the country should be. …