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Framers of Iraq's constitution want to extend deadline
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Framers of Iraq's new constitution said Sunday they need more time to finish the document, a move that threatens the political momentum on which Washington has staked its strategy for drawing down forces from the country next year.
President Jalal Talabani, however, insisted that the Aug. 15 deadline for parliament to approve the draft charter must be met. A showdown was expected today -- the last day under the interim constitution for the committee to seek an extension.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad on Wednesday to insist that the Iraqis finish the constitution on time. But substantial differences remain among the Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish factions despite weeks of intense deliberations.
Underscoring the stakes, the U.S. military announced Sunday that five more American service members died in a pair of explosions in Baghdad the day before. Their deaths brought the number of Americans killed in the last week to 16.
Members of the drafting committee had been warning for weeks that although 90 percent of the document was completed, the 71 members could not agree on a handful of key issues, including federalism, the role of Islam, distribution of national wealth and the name of the country.
With no sign of compromise, committee chairman Humam Hammoudi said on his way into a meeting that he would recommend the group ask for a 30-day extension. After the meeting, one of the framers, Bahaa al-Araji, said the recommendation had been accepted.
Al-Araji said Kurdish delegates wanted a six-month delay -- the maximum amount under the interim constitution -- but that Shiites and Sunni Arabs would accept no more than 30 days.
As word of a possible extension spread, however, U.S. officials began pressuring the Iraqis to stand fast by the timetable, Iraqi officials said.
After parliament ratifies the charter, it will be submitted to a referendum two months later. If voters approve, a new election will be held in mid-December, and the United States and its coalition partners can begin withdrawing forces by next summer.
Talabani, a Kurd, met Sunday with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and then issued a statement underscoring "the necessity to finish the writing of the constitution at the scheduled time."
Talabani "demanded" that "maximum efforts be exerted" to reach agreement on the draft as scheduled. Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intensive consultations were under way Sunday night to find a way out of the impasse.
Yet suspicions were running deep among the three factions. The Shiites were pressing for language declaring Islam the main source of legislation, whereas the Kurds wanted religious teachings to be one of a number of sources.
The Kurds were holding out for federalism, which many Sunnis fear will lead to the breakup of the state. Even among those who support federalism, broad differences exist on such details as the limits of regional power and a formula for distributing oil wealth.
A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he believed the Aug. 15 deadline can be met.
But the official acknowledged the option of requesting an extension for submitting the charter to the parliament. He said that as long as Iraqi leaders can hold the referendum in mid-October, the political process will be on track.
In Washington, the Bush administration said that, officially, no one has asked for a new timetable for finishing the constitution.
"The committee continues to meet and we understand it's making progress," White House spokeswoman Christie Parell said Sunday. "The president looks forward to the committee completing its work."
Yet by pressuring the committee to complete the document on time, the United States risks alienating factions that might lobby against the charter in the October referendum. If two-thirds of the people in any three of the 18 provinces vote against it, the constitution will be defeated.
Kurds form an overwhelming majority in three provinces and Sunni Arabs hold sway in at least four.
Since assuming his post this month, Khalilzad has urged the Iraqis to show statesmanship and compromise to forge a "national compact" in which Sunni Arabs would gradually abandon the insurgency and enable American troops to go home.
The Americans fear that any delay in the constitutional process would serve as an opening to insurgents and widen the gulf among ethnic and religious groups.
On Sunday, a car bomb exploded south of Baghdad, killing five civilians and wounding 10, including two policemen. A convoy carrying several members of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress group was ambushed south of Baghdad, leaving one person dead and three wounded, his spokesman said.
U.S. Marines used tanks and jet aircraft to attack insurgents who fired at a patrol with machine guns from a schoolhouse near Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Eleven insurgents were killed, the U.S. military said without mentioning any American losses.
A Task Force Baghdad soldier was killed Saturday when a patrol hit a roadside bomb in the southern Dora neighborhood, a U.S. statement said. Two others were wounded. Late Saturday night, four soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb exploded in southwestern Baghdad.
At least 1,794 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In other developments in Iraq:
* Gunmen in Baghdad opened fire on a minibus carrying Justice Ministry employees who work in the prisons department, wounding two. Insurgents frequently target buses carrying government employees or Iraqis working on U.S. military bases.
* In Kirkuk, assailants opened fire on a truck carrying employees of the local health administration, killing one and wounding two, police said. Gunmen also killed an Iraqi translator for U.S. troops in the south, police said.
* In Baqouba, one Iraqi soldier was killed and three others wounded by gunmen after they left their jobs at a former U.S. base, a Diyala provincial commander said.