BAGHDAD, Iraq – One of Iraq's top Sunni Arabs on Thursday rejected a Shiite politician's declaration that there would be no substantive changes made to the country's new constitution, saying that if Shiites hold to that stance it will divide the country.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front, said the minority Sunni Arabs were persuaded to participate in the country's Dec. 15 elections by the provision that allows Iraq's constitution to be amended during the first four months of the new government.
A leading Shiite politician on Wednesday — Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — warned that his governing religious bloc would not allow substantive changes to the constitution, including the provision that leaves provincial governments strong and the central government weak.
"We have a group of established principles which we will never give up. Any coalition should be based on these principles," he said. "The first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution. This constitution was endorsed by the Iraqi people."
A key Sunni demand is weaker federalism and a stronger central government. The constitution now gives most power — including control over oil profits — to provincial governments. The Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north control nearly all of Iraq's oil, while Sunni Arab areas have little.
"If they do not accept key amendments to the country's new constitution, including the regions issue, then let them work alone and divide the country, as for us we do not accept this," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press by phone from Amman, Jordan.
Al-Mutlaq is the country's third most powerful Sunni Arab politician. Adnan al-Dulaimi and Tarek al-Hashimi, the two main leaders of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front, hadn't yet responded to Hakim's declaration.
Al-Hakim also marked the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha by calling Wednesday for God's help in fighting the insurgency.
"We ask God's blessing to send a strong stroke against the terrorists," he said, adding that combatting the insurgency would be the top priority of the new government. Sunni Arabs make up the core of the insurgency.
The cleric also heads the governing United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite religious bloc with a strong lead in the elections, according to preliminary results. But the 130 of parliament's 275 seats it is expected to receive will not be enough to avoid forming a coalition government with smaller parties.
Violence in Iraq spiked last week, with almost 200 people killed in two days of suicide attacks. Sixteen U.S. troops died from hostile action, and eight died in a helicopter crash, the cause of which has yet to be determined.
Violence this week has dropped considerably as the country celebrates Eid, a four-day Islamic holiday. No violence had been reported as of midday Thursday.
U.S. Army soldiers killed six insurgents Wednesday in a fire fight in Baghdad, including two wearing suicide belts, the military said. They arrested one man and confiscated a weapons cache.
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment were involved in the fight, said Spc. George Welcome, of the 101st Airborne Division.
Gunmen killed four people near Mosul on Wednesday, including a former senior member of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. A roadside bomb also killed two policemen outside Samarra, north of Baghdad. And the U.S. military said seven bodies "with evidence of torture" were found at a sewage plant.