Iraqis avert crisis with constitutional compromise

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s sectarian leaders stepped back from a simmering constitutional crisis Sunday, agreeing to wait at least 18 months before setting up autonomous regions that would shift power away from the central government.

During the cooling-off period, parliament would consider amendments to the constitution, providing a public forum for the divisive issue of autonomy.

The deal, which was still being fine-tuned Sunday night, allows lawmakers to avoid a looming constitutional deadline that threatened to exacerbate the sectarian violence ravaging the country.

The compromise leaves intact the goal of southern Shiite Muslims and northern Kurds to create a federal system that would strengthen their hold on the vast oil resources of their two regions. At the same time, the nation’s Sunni Arabs, who dominate in the resource-poor central and western provinces, would have time to seek constitutional changes to limit the effect of autonomy.

“I feel this agreement has ended a political crisis,” said Dhafir Ani of the minority Sunni bloc that opposed the federal system. “I think for us this deal is good but not perfect.”

Those present said the agreement calls for parliament to appoint a committee that will have a year to recommend amendments to the constitution. The members are to be named today.

On Tuesday, parliament will begin debate on proposals for forming a federal system. At least four groups have competing drafts of the power-sharing law, but the one offered by the majority Shiite bloc is expected to prevail. The 18-month waiting period for implementation will begin once the law is passed.

A clause allowing amendments was inserted into the constitution as a last-minute concession to Sunnis who objected to the mandate for a federal system.

Sunni Arabs began observing Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of daytime fasting, on Saturday while Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared the start to be today. The Shiite-led government followed al-Sistani’s lead.

Despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plea for peace during Ramadan, violence killed at least 20 Iraqis and wounded 37 Sunday. The military also reported the deaths of two U.S. Marines in Anbar province Sunday.

Also Sunday, a gruesome videotape of two dead American soldiers being mutilated was broadcast on Iraqi television. The video was an expanded version of a clip that aired during the summer, purported to show the two soldiers killed in June in an area south of Baghdad.

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