Factional tensions in Shi'ite areas of Iraq are rising in the wake of clashes yesterday in Al-Najaf, Baghdad, and Al-Basrah. The clashes appear largely connected to longstanding power struggles between Shi'ite parties and their armed wings for political control of key centers. But the fallout could affect efforts in Baghdad to finally approve the country's first post-Saddam Hussein draft constitution. According to the latest timetable, the National Assembly is due to vote by midnight today on whether to approve the document.
Prague, 25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari has called for calm in the wake of the clashes between Shi'ite factions in several cities.
"I would like to express my deep sorrow over actions such as these that violate the sanctity of the offices of religious authorities or any of our citizens, whatever his or her age and background are," al-Ja'fari said. "At the same time, I will appoint a group of my colleagues to serve on an investigation team looking into the Al-Najaf [incidents], to find those who incited and perpetrated such an act."
The factional fighting marks the first time that rival Shi'ite militias have fought openly. The large Shi'ite parties, which have armed wings, have variously competed and cooperated in elections. But they have restricted violence against each other to sporadic, targeted assassinations.
The street fighting began yesterday when some 1,000 Shi'ite demonstrators marched on an office opened earlier this week in the holy city of Al-Najaf by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The crowd waved banners demanding the "expulsion of the outsiders." That message was a warning to al-Sadr to stick to his main power base in the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad -- and not to try to strengthen his presence in the southern city.
Al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf was closed after his fighters, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, launched an uprising against U.S. forces one year ago. The fighting inflicted heavy damage on Al-Najaf businesses before the Al-Mahdi Army was expelled.
Al-Najaf's governor is a member of the rival Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the largest Shi'ite parties.
Reports say up to six people may have been killed in the clashes between demonstrators and guards at the al-Sadr office. Independent confirmation of the numbers is not yet available.
Immediately afterward, Al-Mahdi Army members attacked three offices of the rival Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in Baghdad. In Al-Basrah, al-Sadr loyalists clashed with fighters from SCIRI.
Today, al-Sadr demanded that SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim condemn "what his followers have done" in Al-Najaf. SCIRI officials deny members of its armed wing, the Badr Brigades, took part in the violence.
Draft Constitution To Be Put To Vote
The fighting comes at a highly sensitive moment. Iraq's National Assembly is due to hold a vote by midnight tonight to approve or reject the country's first post-Saddam Hussein draft constitution.
In protest over the Al-Najaf clash, al-Sadr supporters in the government and in the National Assembly said they would suspend work today. That leaves it unclear whether al-Sadr's representatives in the National Assembly will boycott the planned vote on the draft charter.
Today's expected vote marks the third attempt at finishing the process of approving the draft charter, which was originally due to be completed by 15 August. The vote is intended to clear the way for a national referendum on the constitution by mid-October.
However, there is still no certainty that key disputes have been resolved -- despite repeated statements from officials underlining the importance of adopting a constitution and of moving ahead to national elections at the end of the year. Both Washington and Baghdad hope those elections will weaken the insurgency.
Iraqi interim President Jalal Talabani called yesterday for leaders of Iraq's major communities to try to reach an agreement. "Iraq cannot achieve stability without cooperation and consensus between its three major communities [Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds]," he said. "The constitution must be for all [Iraqis] and in the service of all."
Sunnis Fear Being Left Out
The biggest dispute has centered on how much power to give to Iraq's regions under a new federal system. All sides are reported to accept continued autonomy for Kurdish-administered northern Iraq. But Sunni leaders have balked at a demand by SCIRI to create an autonomous region from Shi'ite-majority areas in southern and central Iraq.
The Sunnis say they fear autonomous authorities in southern and northern Iraq would hoard Iraq's oil revenues and leave the Sunni center, which has no oil fields, impoverished.
Al-Sadr's supporters have also previously objected to the Shi'ite autonomy proposal as setting back their hopes for creating an Islamic system across Iraq. The proposal has not been directly commented upon by al-Sadr himself.
There is also a continuing dispute over whether members of the former ruling Ba'ath Party should be excluded from some top government positions. Sunni members of the constitutional drafting committee have objected to a clause they say would bar many Sunnis from office. Sunnis dominated the Ba'ath Party under Hussein.
Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, who is also a leader of the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, called on 23 August for flexibility from Shi'a and Kurds over the issue.
"We think that many people who joined the Ba'ath Party in the past but have not committed crimes or assumed high office are innocent with clean hands," al-Ja'fari said. "We must seriously consider accommodating them. We are already accommodating all those brothers, and they are working in ministries, holding high positions. This is a sign of strength."
Role Of Islam Divisive
Another divisive issue is the demand from religious parties that the constitution forbid the passage of any law that contradicts Islamic principles. Secularists object, saying that would open the way for clerics to roll back rights that women now enjoy under Iraqi civil law, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
It remains unclear whether the Shi'ite religious parties, which dominate the National Assembly, will try to push through a majority-approved draft document today if the disputes cannot be resolved.
The second-largest group in the assembly is composed of Kurdish representatives. The Kurdish bloc is reported to accept extending the right of federalism to the Shi'a, but opposes making the legal system more religious based.
Some Sunni leaders have said that if a draft constitution is approved in the National Assembly without their support, they will work to overturn it in the October referendum. The draft constitution can be rejected if a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's provinces votes against it.
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