Iraq: Panel on constitution changes formed

Iraq's fractious ethnic and religious parliamentary groups have agreed to open debate on a contentious Shiite-proposed draft legislation that will allow the creation of federal regions in Iraq.
The agreement came after a compromise was reached with Sunni Arabs on setting up a parliamentary committee to amend Iraq's constitution, a key demand by the minority.
The committee will be set up Monday and the federalism bill will be read to the body a day later, Sunni and Shiite politicians said.

The deal opens the way for Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to move ahead politically and break a two-week political deadlock that threatened to further sour relations between the communities. If left unresolved, the deadlock could have further shaken Iraq's fragile democracy and led to more sectarian violence.

The federalism bill calls for setting up a system to allow the creation of autonomous regions in the predominantly Shiite south, much like the self-ruling Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Sunni Arabs have said they fear the legislation will split Iraq apart and fuel sectarian bloodshed.

The Kurdish north and Shiite south hold Iraq's oil fields, while the predominantly Sunni Arab areas are mostly desert.

Sunni Arabs say that before the bill can be passed, parliament must make headway to amend the constitution – a key demand they made when they agreed to join Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

One of the amendments they seek would weaken the ability to set up self-ruling cantons.

It will take about a year to amend the constitution and the legislation, even if approved, will take 18 months to be implemented, legislators said.

A representative from the largest Shiite coalition in the 275-member parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, said that a committee of 27 legislators will be formed to begin the process of amending the constitution and that the draft federalism bill would be read out on Tuesday.

“That was our agreement,” Alliance deputy Hassan al-Shammari told The Associated Press.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the largest Sunni Arab group, the Iraqi Accordance Front, confirmed the timeline.

The constitutional committee, which will be led by a member of the Accordance Front, has four months to propose amendments, which then have to be approved by an absolute majority in parliament before being put to a referendum.

The federalism bill will first be read to the legislature and then debated for two days before parliament breaks Friday and Saturday. It will read again with any changes on Oct. 1, then voted on four days later.

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, ASSOCIATED PRESS
24 September 2006