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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqis Amend Constitution to Appease Sunnis

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- President Jalal Talabani and other top politicians on Wednesday praised as "historic" the last-minute compromises that negotiators reached on the draft constitution and urged Iraqis to vote "yes" in this weekend's referendum.

"I have good news for the Iraqi people on this historic day. An agreement has been reached on amendments to the draft constitution," Talabani said during a nationally televised news conference. "There is no excuse for Arab Sunnis to boycott the vote now that we have responded to all their demands and suggestions."

He was followed at the microphone by several other Iraqi politicians who also praised the compromises reached on Tuesday night by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish powerbrokers on the charter ahead of Saturday's referendum.

They included National Assembly Speaker Hajim Al-Hassani, a Sunni; Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni; former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite; and Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, a Shiite who heads the Iraqi United Alliance, the largest coalition in parliament.

The draft constitution already has been printed by the United Nations, and millions of copies are being distributed to the public for the vote. New additions cannot be included now.

Therefore, the only way that they can be announced to potential voters is through the media, and Talabani began that campaign Wednesday with his televised news conference.

The breakthrough deal reached Tuesday night by powerbrokers from Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni and Kurdish minorities attempts to address concerns among Sunnis that have prompted many of them to say they will vote "no" in the referendum.

Most Shiites and Kurds plan to vote "yes," but Sunnis fear the draft document being distributed to voters will fragment Iraq, allowing Shiites and Kurds to create mini-states in the oil-rich north and south, leaving Sunnis in a poor central zone.

The deal the negotiators reached Tuesday night agrees on a mechanism to consider amending the constitution after it is approved in Saturday's nationwide vote.

The next parliament, to be formed in December, will set up a commission to consider amendments, which would later have to be approved by parliament and submitted to another referendum. That would give Sunnis the ability to try later to introduce major changes they want, aimed at reducing the autonomous powers that Shiites and Kurds would have under the federal system created by the charter, negotiators said.

The agreement, which U.S. officials apparently promoted behind the scenes, boosts the chances that the draft constitution will be passed in Saturday's referendum.

A special session of Iraq's National Assembly was scheduled on Wednesday night to vote on the breakthrough on the constitution, but it could have trouble forming a quorum.

A monthlong legislative recess began Monday, and many legislators had returned to their provinces for Saturday's referendum vote and to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with their families. To improve security for the referendum, a four-day national curfew also begins on Thursday, and a holiday has been called for the ballot.

Still, Parliament speaker spokesman Muhanad Abdel-Jabar said the assembly must meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday to vote on the final version of the draft constitution incorporating Tuesday's last-minute compromises. He said lawmakers who rush back to Baghdad for the special session will be flown home afterward at the government's expense.

If a quorum is reached, the vote could simply be a formality since most of the lawmakers generally follow their party leaders.

Parliament failed to reach a quorum earlier this week when it met in an effort to strip former defense minister Hazem Shaalan of his immunity from prosecution over the alleged disappearance or misappropriation of $1 billion in military procurement funds.

On Wednesday, the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group that has called for a boycott in the referendum, said it would now closely watch parliament's vote.

"After the National Assembly's special session, we will make our decision," Mohammad Bashar al-Faidhi, the group's founder, said in an interview. "Generally speaking, our position is to boycott the whole political process, but if something positive comes out of the session, then we might think in another way."

But insurgents continued deadly attacks aimed at wrecking Saturday's vote. A suicide bomber set off hidden explosives in a crowd of men waiting outside an Iraqi army recruitment center in the northwestern town of Tal Afar, killing 30 Iraqis and wounding 35, officials said.

Those and other militant attacks on Wednesday raised Iraq's death toll over the last 17 days to 425, according to an AP count based on police reports.