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Shiites Won't Budge On Constitution

A leading Shiite politician marked Islam's feast of sacrifice Wednesday by asking for God's help to smite the insurgency, and warned his governing religious bloc would not allow substantive changes to Iraq's new constitution — a key Sunni Arab demand.

In Baghdad, U.S. Army soldiers killed six insurgents in a fire fight, including two wearing suicide belts. They arrested one man and confiscated what was described as "an enormous weapons find."

Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, came under fire during what was an "air-insertion mission," said Spc. George Welcome, of the 101st Airborne Division.

"Following the fire fight, soldiers discovered two dead insurgents wearing suicide vests, strapped with explosives," Welcome said in an announcement.

The cache included components to make 15 pressure activate bombs, 60 electronic detonators, 400 pounds of homemade explosives and small arms.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, marked the Eid al-Adha holiday by saying that combatting the insurgency would be the top priority of any new government formed after the Dec. 15 elections. Sunni Arabs make up the core of the insurgency.

"We ask God's blessing to send a strong stroke against the terrorists," he said.

In other developments:

  • Iraqi health officials said steps were taken to prevent the spread of lethal bird flu from neighboring Turkey, but the World Health Organization acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with any outbreak in violence-torn Iraq — where at least 500 people have been killed by bombs and bullets in the past month. There have been no reported cases of bird flu in Iraq.
  • President Bush defended his Iraq policy at a town hall-style appearance in Louisville, Ky. Answering questions for an audience invited by local business groups, the president maintained progress is being made in Iraq — and his strategy there will achieve victory.
  • Four of the eight U.S. soldiers killed in the crash of an Army Black Hawk helicopter in northern Iraq last weekend were members of the Alaska National Guard, the Pentagon said Wednesday. One of the Guard soldiers was a female officer whose husband also is deployed in Iraq, her mother said. Also killed in the crash Saturday near Tal Afar were four civilian passengers.
  • Baby Noor recovering from surgery for spinal birth defects shows no need for a second operation so far, her doctor said Wednesday. Dr. Roger Hudgins said the 3-month-old's head circumference and soft spot remain unchanged from Tuesday's exam, indicating no dangerous buildup of spinal fluid in her brain. The baby was brought to the United States for treatment after U.S. troops found her in a poverty-stricken district near Baghdad.
  • Al-Hakim said any amendments to Iraq's newly-minted constitution would have to leave provincial governments strong, adding that Shiites would reject efforts to weaken the federalism embodied by the charter. It was approved in a mid-October referendum.

    "We do not accept any change in the essence of the constitution. There are forces working to change the constitution, we will stand in the face of those who want to change the essence of the constitution," al-Hakim said.

    The cleric also heads the governing United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite religious bloc with a strong lead from last month's polls. Final results are expected next week and will set the Alliance's lead, but they will not to provide enough seats for it to avoid a coalition government.

    "We have a group of established principles which we will never give up. Any coalition should be based on these principles," al-Hakim said. "The first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution. This constitution was endorsed by the Iraqi people."

    Sunni Arabs place great stock in their ability to change it, one of the reasons the minority's politicians urged its members to turn out in huge numbers during the elections.

    A key demands is weaker federalism and a stronger central government as 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.

    To win their support, Sunni Arabs were promised they could propose amendments in the first four months of the new parliament's.

    There was limited violence Wednesday.

    Gunmen killed four people, including a former senior member of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party, near northern Mosul. Jemal Kheder A'bdal was shot near his home, police said. A roadside bomb killed two policemen outside Samarra, north of Baghdad. The U.S. military said seven bodies "with evidence of torture" were found at a sewage plant.

    "Terrorism is more dangerous than bird flu," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told Iraqi reporters. "It targets all, children, women, schools and the public market."