Iraq leaders push back deadline seven days

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Iraq's parliament voted to give Shiite, Kurd and Sunni delegates until Monday to resolve issues.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- At the last minute, Iraqi leaders couldn't agree.

Some couldn't even agree on what they disagreed on.

Instead, they gave themselves another week to draft a new constitution, missing a key midnight Monday deadline and increasing questions about whether Iraq's factions are capable of compromise. It was a rebuff to U.S. officials pressing for a deal, even an incomplete one, to keep political momentum going and, eventually, blunt the deadly insurgency.

Twenty minutes before midnight, Iraq's parliament voted to give Shiite, Kurd and Sunni Arab delegates until Monday to resolve thorny power-sharing issues -- the same ones bedeviling the country's three main factions since the fall of Saddam Hussein more than two years ago.

How to share the oil money. Whether the Kurds -- and even the Shiites -- can go their own way. And how Islam's role in the courts might affect women.

"We should not be hasty regarding the issues and the constitution should not be born crippled," said Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, after the parliament session. "We are keen to have an early constitution, but the constitution should be completed in all of its items."

U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the delay, and President Bush expressed confidence the Iraqis would reach consensus.

"I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue," he said in a statement. "Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise."

The United States hopes progress on the political front, including adoption of a democratic constitution, will help deflate the Sunni Arab-led rebellion and enable the Americans and their partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

For a moment late Monday, it looked like Iraq's constitutional committee had reached a tentative deal on all but two key issues, according to several Shiite politicians. Lawmakers gathered at parliament, some expecting to debate and then vote on a final charter.

Television cameras were at the ready. In a sign of Washington's close involvement, the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was in the hall, wearing a broad grin.

As the session was about to start, electricity went out for about three minutes. When lights came back on, Khalilzad, al-Jaafari and others were surrounded by their bodyguards, an indication of the persistent threat of violence in Iraq.

Then, Kurdish leaders proposed a seven- to 10-day extension. The parliament meeting lasted a mere 15 minutes.

Afterward, the U.S. ambassador blamed the setback partly on a three-day sandstorm that prevented delegates from meeting. "Iraqi leaders determined that a seven-day extension was needed to resolve remaining issues and to fine tune the language of the draft to avoid errors," he said. "I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days."

Shiites said the stumbling blocks were women's rights, inextricably tied to Islam's role; and the right of Kurds to eventually secede. But al-Jaafari said distribution of oil wealth and federalism -- another, broader way of stating the Kurdish autonomy issue -- were the key unresolved points.

The confusion was one more sign of Iraq's sharp political divisions, and it left unclear whether the constitutional committee will now reopen talks on all issues or just focus on a few.

Even if negotiators do produce a constitution in the next week, the wide divide over issues such as federalism, oil revenues and Islam's role are unlikely to dissipate. The majority Shiites also have a stake in federalism, hoping to create an autonomous region in the south as Kurds have in the north -- both areas rich in oil. Minority Sunni Arabs oppose federalism, while showing some willingness to compromise.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the constitutional committee, told state-run Iraqiya television: "We still have our reservations regarding federalism, but that was not the only reason for the postponement, because there were big points of disagreements, not between us and others but between the others themselves."

Sunni Arabs are believed the biggest supporters of the insurgency that still wracks the country, causing Washington to push hard for their demands to be addressed to lure them from the fighting.

The impasse left open the possibility that Iraq -- a patchwork of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis put together as a nation by the British after World War I -- could still tumble into a civil war.

It also blunted the rapid progress toward democracy that Iraqis have accomplished so far, from the vote last Jan. 30 that installed the nation's first elected government to the efforts to share power among the Shiite majority, the strong Kurdish group and the smaller, disgruntled Sunni Arab faction.

If agreement on a constitution is reached, however, Iraqis will vote around Oct. 15 to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country's first new government under the new constitution.

Kurdish leaders were the ones to propose the deadline extension, and their demands in recent weeks have stymied consensus.

The Kurds had suggested language giving them eight years within a unified Iraq and after that the right to secede. Shiites told them they should decide now whether they want to stay within Iraq.

The issue of women's rights was just as complicated and undecided, falling under Shiite demands that Islam be the main source of legislation. Under Islamic law, or sharia, women might not receive the same share of inheritance and cannot initiate divorce.

In contrast, officials had said that agreements had been reached previously on issues such as distribution of the country's oil revenues, the country's name and the issue of whether Iraqis could hold dual citizenship.

But Jaafari said oil revenues were still up for grabs. And even the name was unclear: Officials have said they were deciding on either the Republic of Iraq or Federal Republic of Iraq, but had ruled out the idea of putting any Islamic reference in the country's name.


Associated Press reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Omar Sinan contributed to this report.

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