Iraqi Leader: Sunnis to Help Draft Constitution

Sunni Muslim Arabs will be given up to 25 seats on the committee drafting Iraq's new constitution, President Jalal Talabani (search) said Thursday.

The announcement, made during a visit to Baghdad by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search), was a victory for Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who threatened to pull out of the political process if they were not given a bigger say on the committee.

"We have decided to add about 20 to 25 members from Sunnis in the committee, which will draft the constitution with full rights like other members who were elected by the parliament," Talabani said.

"This will be done very soon and we are discussing to finalize the making of this decision," he added.

Talabani's call seemed to meet demands made a day earlier by top Sunni leaders for 27 seats on a committee drafting the new constitution.

Two Sunni Arab lawmakers sit on a 55-member parliamentary committee drafting the charter, but Sunni Arabs (search) felt this was too small a representation.

The Shiite-led government offered 13 extra places for Sunni Arabs from outside the parliament to help the 55-member committee draw up the constitution. No voting rights were offered to the 13, however, but the committee said it would make all decisions by consensus.

On Wednesday, however, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab organizations, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni Endowment, rejected the offer of 13, and instead demanded 25 seats with the same voting rights as the 55 lawmakers. The Sunni groups threatened to boycott the political process if they didn't get what they wanted.

Shiite lawmaker Wael Abdul-Latif, a committee member, had said flatly the demand for 25 seats would not be accepted. He also questioned the groups' authority to represent all Sunni Arabs.

New U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qadhi, said during an earlier news conference with Talabani that the constitution was Iraq's "No. 1 priority."

"A number of steps have been taken, including the establishment of the constitution committee by the National Assembly and discussions are taking place among many groups to ensure that all Iraqis take part in the constitution making, because this is essential for the stability and prosperity of Iraq in future," Qadhi said Thursday.

Sunni Arab support is crucial for Iraq's Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government, particularly to approve the constitution. The draft charter will collapse if three of Iraq's four predominantly Sunni Arab provinces vote against it in a referendum later this year.

The constitution must be drafted by mid-August and approved two months later in a referendum. Sunni Arab approval is needed for the charter to take effect and new elections to be held in December.