BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi committee agreed on Tuesday to send to parliament a plan to reform the constitution, an important step towards implementing national reconciliation laws that Washington says are critical to ending violence.
Once-dominant Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the insurgency, have long demanded changes to a constitution they say concedes too much power to majority Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds, who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein.
U.S. President George W. Bush, under pressure to show tangible progress in the four-year-old war, has piled pressure on Iraqi leaders to agree power-sharing legislation.
Such laws, which include sharing Iraq’s vast oil wealth and ending a ban on former members of Saddam’s party from public office, are particularly aimed at assuaging Sunnis Arabs and bringing them firmly into the U.S.-backed political process.
Saleem al-Jubouri, from the Sunni Accordance Front, said the constitutional reform committee had agreed to pass its draft to parliament next Tuesday — albeit with some passages unresolved.
He said this would allow it technically to meet a May 15 deadline set by the constitution.
“There is a preliminary report that has been approved by committee members,” he told Reuters. “Members now have to consult their political parties on the proposals.”
But he said some thorny issues had been left open, for parliament to resolve. These included a Shi’ite-backed law that allows provinces to form federal regions, and wording on the Arab identity of Iraq, opposed by Kurds.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe welcomed the move, but said: “There is more work to be done, but this step will help in the process of bringing all Iraqis together to help build a stable, secure and unified democracy.”
In another sign of political progress, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said the presidential council would soon send to parliament a draft proposal to allow thousands of ex-Baath party members to return to public jobs, another Sunni demand.
The council comprises Hashemi, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul al-Mahdi.
Hashemi’s Accordance Front had warned it might quit Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government if Sunni grievances were ignored, but a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to Iraq last week appears to have softened the Sunnis’ stance.
The bills are likely to face fierce debate in parliament.
Some lawmakers from the ruling Shi’ite community, who were oppressed during Saddam’s rule, have expressed virulent opposition to seeing former Baathists take up government jobs.
Non-Arab Kurds, also persecuted under Saddam’s pan-Arab policies, resist wording on the Arab identity of Iraq.
Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, fear federalism will allow Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south, where Iraq’s oil reserves lie, to break away into their own states. Sunni Arabs live mostly in central and western Iraq, which is poor in oil.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim