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Unseasonal sandstorm disrupts work on Iraq's constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Assassination, a boycott and sectarian and ethnic strife have conspired to complicate drafting a new Iraqi constitution by the Aug. 15 deadline.

Monday, it was a sandstorm.

The Middle East equivalent of a blizzard grounded flights, stranded key political leaders in the provinces, canceled meetings and postponed news conferences.

Citizens struggled under the coating of brown grit that was dumped on the city, closing shops, clogging lungs, reducing visibility and causing fender benders. Insurgent violence in the country was low Monday too, perhaps due to the swirling brown clouds.

Sandstorms usually plague the country in spring. The unseasonal weather forced the cancellation of a meeting of the country's leading political figures. They were supposed to try to break a deadlock that's dividing factions on the constitution drafting committee, a key step in setting the country on the road to stable democracy. Still being debated are the division of natural resources, the role of Islam in legislation and the degree of autonomy that regions will have.

The meeting had to be pushed back to Tuesday because the high winds and swirling sand reduced visibility to a maximum of 220 yards, preventing air travel. A delegation of Kurdish politicians including Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan regional government, got stuck in Kirkuk on their way to Baghdad.

It's a costly delay for Iraqi leaders, who are under American pressure to complete the constitution on time.

"Any day that passes, we lose a day of work," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the National Assembly and the constitution drafting commission. Othman said he was pessimistic that agreement could be reached on all issues by the deadline.

As the air in Baghdad turned into a ghostly khaki-colored fog, shops were shuttered, traffic was light and hospitals reported a surge of people seeking treatment for lung ailments. The boys who usually sell cold Pepsi on the streets peddled dust masks.

In a city where a mask usually means a gunman or a police officer who's trying to hide his identity from insurgents, plenty of ordinary people tied cloths around their faces, trying to keep from inhaling the talclike sand.

Schools, however, didn't have to declare a sand day. They were already closed for summer.

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(Chin reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam and special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SANDSTORM

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