BAGHDAD, 29 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - Iraqi officials signed the country's new constitution on Sunday, after many amendments, but the charter was still rejected by Sunni Arabs who call it an "illegitimate" document.
"We have finally approved and signed the new Iraqi constitution, this means progress and democracy in Iraq," said Khaled al-Attiyah, a Shi'ite member of the Constitution Committee.
The 13 day delay in the final approval of the new constitution raised tensions between parties and ultimately brought little satisfaction to some members of the committee as well as rejection from religious leaders and local residents.
In a joint statement shortly after the draft was submitted to parliament, Sunni negotiators delivered their statement of rejection, as Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders celebrated the upcoming referendum on the constitution on 15 October.
Sunni members of the committee also asked the Arab League, the United Nations and international organisations to intervene and prevent this document from being submitted to the public.
Five million copies of the constitution will soon be circulated nationwide along with the monthly food rations received by Iraqi families from the government, so they can read the charter and make an informed decision when voting. Those who live outside Iraq will not be able to vote, government officials said.
The main sticking points in the constitution objected to by the Sunni members are: federalism, women rights and Islamic law.
Hajim al-Hassany, a Sunni parliament spokesperson, said that the document was filled with religion and had little protection for women's rights and that federalism would only divide the country and separate the rich from the poor.
"I believe that any conscious person will reject this document due to its incompleteness and lack of rights for women and because Islamisation in a diverse country of ethnicities will not make us united," al-Hassany added.
In addition, Kurds wanted to retain their autonomy in the north, as they did under Saddam Hussein, and religious Shi'ites in the south want to slice out a similar region and bring in Islamic law, perhaps in alliance with Iran, some observers fear.
Sunni groups believe that they will lose out under and be left with land that has no oil.
"This draft does not represent the peoples' will," the Alliance of Sunni Muslim Scholars said in a Sunday statement.
Sunnis, which account for only 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people, are very opposed to the new constitution and if two-thirds of voters in any three out of 18 governorates reject the charter in the referendum, the constitution will be defeated.
Sunnis have a majority in at least four governorates.
"I will reject it because it shows that women's rights have been forgotten and they want to divide Iraq between groups and territories which are unacceptable," said Salwa Ibrahim, a Sunni woman in Baghdad. "The constitution is the future of the country and should be prepared step by step and not just rushed to meet a deadline."
But Shi'ite leaders have rejected the claims and arranged meetings on Monday to discuss ways to guarantee a safe referendum.
"This constitution was written by Iraqi hands and it shows the patriotism of Iraqis who are done with dictators and highlighted the democracy in Iraq," Humam Hamoudi, chairman for the Constitution Committee, said.
Kurdish members are highly optimistic about the upcoming referendum.
"They [Sunnis] will not be able to boycott this major step forward that the Iraqi government has taken, we will work twice as hard to have Iraqi history approved," Dia'ar Wahid, a Kurdish member of the committee, noted.
The United Nations has responded to the approval positively, despite the Sunni rejection.
"I want to be realistic in what concerns this referendum and the security situation means a lot for its approval on 15 October, but I can say that I'm optimistic for progress in the country," Nicholas Franklin, head of the UN team assisting in drafting the constitution, said.
"We cannot ensure that it will not be rejected, but we will work to make a great panel. We can just ask God to bless it and even if Iraqis reject it I can say that it was an important step that has been reached after years of repression, showing the true democracy in Iraq," he maintained.
With increasing numbers of staff in Iraq, the UN has been supervising the constitution drafting process and will continue its work until the elections slated for December.
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