US gives ground on Islam to meet deadline for Iraq
US CONCESSIONS to Islamists on the role of religion in Iraqi law marked a turn in talks on a constitution, negotiators said yesterday as they raced to meet tomorrow's deadline to clinch a deal.
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 main source of law - a reversal of interim legal arrangements - 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 yet made it clear it will not approve the kind of clerical rule seen in Shi'ite Iran, a state US President George Bush describes as "evil".
US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been shepherding intensive meetings since parliament averted its own dissolution last Monday by giving constitution drafters another week to resolve crucial differences over regional autonomy and division of oil revenues.
Failing to finish by midnight tomorrow 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 US 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 yesterday, 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.
It would now be written to defend "the unity of Iraq", he said. "We call on all Iraqis to register their names to participate in the coming referendum and elections," Mutlak said.
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 over the ambassador's support.
Khalilzad, who said this month there would 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 Muslim principles. It also, however, contained language establishing equal rights for women and protecting religious minorities.
Meanwhile, President Bush said yesterday that US troops in Iraq were fighting to protect Americans at home from terrorism such as the September 11 attacks four years ago.
"Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
"They know that if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets, and they know that the safety and security of every American is at stake in this war, and they know we will prevail," he said.
His comments came as the public shows more discontent with his handling of Iraq. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, became a symbol for anti-war protesters after camping near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch, where he is on vacation, urging him to bring US troops home.
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