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Political deal reached amid Iraq violence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi political leaders broke weeks of deadlock yesterday as Sunni Arabs agreed to join a Shiite-dominated panel drafting Iraq's new constitution. Despite the breakthrough, violence continued across Iraq and the U.S. military announced the deaths of six more American troops.

The agreement marked a turnaround in Iraqi politics and opened the way for the Iraqi National Assembly to meet its Aug. 15 deadline for completing the document. Shiite legislators had been haggling with Sunni Arabs for weeks over the number of seats the Sunnis would be given on the 55-member Constitutional Committee.

But the violent insurgency ground on. The U.S. military said yesterday that six American troops were killed Wednesday in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. Five Marines died when a bomb exploded as their vehicle passed. A sailor assigned to the Marine expeditionary force died after being hit by gunfire, the military said.

U.S. troops have suffered 42 fatalities from hostile fire in the first half of the month, a figure already higher than that for all of June 2003 and June 2004, according to the Web site Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which tracks official casualty reports.

Violence continued to take Iraqi lives. A suicide car bomber slammed into a truck carrying Iraqi police near Baghdad's airport, killing at least eight and wounding 25, the Interior Ministry said. Northeast of the capital, a second car bomb hit an Iraqi army convoy, killing at least two soldiers and wounding five. And in northern Iraq, another Iraqi convoy was bombed, killing eight and wounding eight.

U.S. officials also announced the capture of al-Qaida's leader in the Mosul area of northern Iraq. The military described the captured insurgent, Mohammed Khalaf Shakar, also known as Abu Talha, as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's most-trusted agent in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi is al-Qaida's top operative in Iraq.

Shakar "is a key lieutenant in al-Qaida," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway at a Pentagon briefing yesterday. "He has said that he will not be taken alive, that he wore a vest and would detonate himself. In fact, he gave up rather peacefully."

The general said the capture could reduce the rate of insurgent attacks in Northern Iraq.

A military statement said "intelligence sources" had led coalition and Iraqi security forces to Tuesday's capture in a quiet neighborhood in Mosul.

Meanwhile, political leaders sounded relieved about yesterday's agreement on the drafting of the constitution, which in many ways marked a new political beginning for Sunni Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of Iraq's population.

Sunnis had grown increasingly isolated in recent months after most refused to vote in national elections in January. Shiite Muslims, who account for about 60 percent of Iraqis, swept to power in those elections, and Sunnis, the former ruling class under Saddam Hussein, have chafed under the new rule.

But Sunni and Shiite Muslim participants in the negotiations emerged yesterday with different versions of just what their agreement entailed.

Shiite negotiators insisted that 13 Sunnis would be added to the two already on the 55- member committee. Salih Mutlaq and Mohammed Dayini of the National Dialogue Council, a leading Sunni umbrella group involved in the talks, said 15 Sunnis would be added.

A Western diplomat monitoring the negotiations backed the Sunni version of events. But this was disputed by a powerful Shiite official involved in the talks.

"We have asked [Sunnis] to nominate 13 names," said Saad Jawad of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a member of the constitutional committee.

All sides agree that an additional 10 Sunni representatives will serve as informal consultants to the committee.

The apparent disconnect underscores the wide gap that must be overcome before the drafting of the constitution begins in earnest. From the start, the effort to include the former ruling minority in the government has been fraught with distrust, dueling accusations and brinksmanship - seriously delaying formation of an administration that is only meant to last until new elections can be held under a permanent constitution in December.

Despite the differing versions of yesterday's agreement, the deal does bring significant concessions on both sides.

Sunni leaders apparently have dropped their demand for 25 more seats, settling for adding 10 "experts" who will serve on a consultative body that will include representatives of different sects and ethnicities. Sunnis also had demanded that the extra committee members have full voting rights.

Negotiators avoided the potentially thorny voting rights issue by eliminating the prospect of voting, saying that the committee would approve the new constitution by consensus and not by vote, making the precise number of seats less important.

The groups are set to meet again over the weekend, when the various Sunni factions involved are expected to present their list of candidates. But further gridlock seems likely as Shiite leaders have announced their intention to veto nominees judged too close to Hussein's Baathist government.

"We agreed that whoever is nominated has to meet the standards of the National Assembly," said Jawad Maliki, a senior official with the Dawa Party, headed by new Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "For example, they must be well-educated, not a Baathist or a Saddam loyalist, a believer in the political process and not a supporter of terrorism."

Drafters of the constitution will have less than two months to craft a document that navigates a number of sensitive issues that include the relationship between religion and state; the prospect of a federal Iraq composed of semiautonomous regions; and the issue of how Iraq, with its proud and independent Kurdish population, fits into the larger Arab world.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.

Other developments

Six American troops died Wednesday in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

U.S. officials announced the capture of Mohammed Khalaf Shakar, described as al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's most-trusted operations agent in Iraq.

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