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Iraqi transitional president agrees to Sunni security requests

Decision may end charter boycott

BAGHDAD -- Transitional President Jalal Talabani of Iraq said yesterday that his government had agreed to security requests by Sunni Arab delegates who serve on the nation's constitution-drafting committee, an olive branch that could end a Sunni boycott of the charter-writing process.

Sunni delegates, who launched a boycott after the killing last week of one of their leading colleagues and a legal adviser, also indicated they are ready to resume work on the document, which is due to be approved by Aug. 15.

The announcements came on a day that new US Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad arrived in Baghdad. Talabani spoke at a news conference greeting Khalizad, 54, who also met yesterday with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Talabani said that Shi'ites and Kurds, who hold the vast majority of seats in the National Assembly, would not impose their will on the Sunnis, who are a minority in the Assembly and in Iraq's total population.

''Today we discussed their demands and approved all the logical ones like to provide security and respect the principle of agreement, not to impose decisions of majority," said Talabani, an ethnic Kurd.

''We think they will accept this and will return to participate in the political process because it is the process of all and the constitution is for all. No real Iraqi constitution that protects the unity of Iraq could be written unless all Iraqi factions agree to it."

The Sunni delegates had requested security from the government, as well as an international investigation of the shooting death Tuesday of law professor Mijbil Issa, and the retraction of statements made by the Constitutional Committee's chairman saying that work on the document was nearly complete. The Sunnis said they had yet to agree to any of the key demands.

Sunni delegate Saleh Mutlak suggested that the 14-member group of Sunnis was ready to rejoin. ''We have reached an agreement on most of the points," he said.

The Sunni delegates, unlike other members of the drafting committee, are not members of the National Assembly because too few Sunnis voted in the January national elections for Sunnis to win any seats. There are a few Sunnis in the Assembly, but they do not represent the larger Sunni community.

The key issue now is that while some Assembly members have found housing in the Green Zone area of Baghdad, which is secured by US-led forces, the Sunni delegates live outside it and are far more vulnerable to attack.

Khalizad used his brief appearance yesterday to emphasize the importance of Sunni participation in the constitution writing process, saying that all Iraqis must become ''shareholders" in the constitution. He also offered American assistance in providing security to the Sunnis if that was deemed necessary.

''It is vital that all Iraqis participate in the constitutional process," said Khalizad. ''Iraq can only succeed if all Iraqis can see themselves in the picture."

Khalizad, who was born in Afghanistan and is a naturalized American, is a political scientist by training who has worked as a Republican operative focused on international affairs. He served on the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Defense Department and later as a counselor for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and as a special assistant to President Bush on the National Security Council.

Both Jaafari and Talabani said that the Iraqi government would soon announce a new security plan aimed at protecting diplomats -- an apparent response to the recent kidnapping and reported murder of Egypt's ambassador to Iraq several weeks ago and the kidnapping earlier this week of Algeria's top diplomat, Ali Belarroussi, the charge d'affaires of the country's mission in Iraq.

Talabani said he hoped the US-led forces would help the Iraqis provide protection to diplomats since some nations did not want to rely on Iraqi forces. ''We hope they will participate with us because some ambassadors refuse to have Iraqi guards and police escorting them," said Talabani.

Belarroussi was traveling in an unarmored car and with little security when he was grabbed at gun point in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the claim was not verifiable. The terrorist group had also claimed responsibility for attacks on three other diplomats from Islamic countries, including Egyptian envoy Ihab al-Sherif, who was seized July 2.

Three days after Sherif was kidnapped, gunmen also attacked envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain. The Pakistani escaped unharmed while the Bahraini envoy was slightly wounded.

In a strange twist, the Associated Press reported, Al Qaeda in Iraq posted a videotape showing a reportedly slain Sherif discussing foreign access to tourist areas near Sharm el-Sheik in what seemed to be an attempt at justifying the deadly attacks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort.

In the latest video, Sherif answers questions about the legal status of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, which was returned by Israel in 1982, including the description of an area that can be accessed by Israelis and foreigners without a visa.

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