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Iraqi leaders expect to meet deadline for draft of new constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi political leaders said they expect to deliver a draft of a new constitution by Monday's deadline, but it wasn't clear whether they could strike a deal on the central issue of how the country's central and regional governments should share power.

"Agreement will be reached on the 15th," Laith Kuba, the spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, predicted on Saturday. "I'm certain everyone will sign onto it on the 15th of August."

"The atmosphere is positive. I think we can finish this issue tomorrow," said Hamid Majed Mousa, a member of the drafting commission and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party.

"We are positive that we will make it on time," said Saad Jawad Qindeel, a Shiite Muslim and another constitution drafter.

That would be a relief to the Bush administration, which has been twisting arms with increasing vigor to get Iraq's divided factions to produce a draft on time. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Iraqis will leave some major issues unsettled in order to meet the deadline and deliver some good news that could help undermine the insurgency and bolster flagging public support for President Bush's Iraq policy.

Hazem al-Nuaimi, a political analyst at al-Mustansariya University in Baghdad, said he didn't expect a delay. However, al-Nuaimi, a secular Shiite, said that deferring hot topics until after new elections planned for December would only foment greater dissent among the country's three main factions, Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds.

"The United States is pushing this process forward, knowing that time will not serve the cause and will not solve any of the disputed issues," al-Nuaimi said. "Time will only further deepen the disputes."

Failing to meet the deadline, however, would delay the creation of a broad-based, permanent government and dim hopes that Iraq would be secure enough to start reducing U.S. troop levels next year.

Americans have turned up the pressure on the drafting committee in recent days, with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad presenting Iraqi leaders with the outline of a draft that resolves some of the most contentious issues, according to news reports.

Kurds are demanding a greater say over their semi-autonomous oil-rich region in the north, and some Shiites insist on a similar arrangement for the oil-rich provinces that they dominate in the south.

"If the state gives rights to one site, it must give them to all," said Sheikh Sadreddin al-Qubanji, a cleric from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Shiite political party.

He told worshipers at Friday prayers in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf that the constitution "must stipulate federalism in Iraq" under a plan that doesn't allow regional autonomy in some places but not in others. He accused opponents of a weaker central government of nostalgia for Saddam Hussein's despotic regime.

Sunnis held the levers of power under Saddam, and many Sunni Arabs now oppose a federal system that they believe would fragment the country and leave them in its heart with little share of the country's natural resources.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the drafting committee, said he fears that some Sunni Arabs or Kurds could walk out at the last minute if the impasse over federalism isn't broken.

"From the very beginning, we said that if the constitution committee wants to have a draft that all would agree on, it would be impossible by Aug. 15," Othman said. "The Sunnis haven't agreed on some points, and I don't think they will. The Kurds also haven't gotten their demands yet. ... There's a concern that the Sunnis and Kurds might boycott."

Othman said the deadlocked topics would be deferred to a new government that takes office after the December elections, assuming that voters approve a new constitution in October.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, also said on Saturday that the constitutional committee would make its deadline. But he denied that any lingering issues would be postponed.

"All issues will be solved by agreement," he said in a statement.

A Western official close to the negotiations, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the Iraqis, said the transitional law that sets the Aug. 15 deadline for delivering a draft of the constitution gives the nation's leaders some wiggle room. The transitional law, he said, is vague enough that the national assembly could revise the draft constitution to include any new agreements between now and the Oct. 15 deadline for a national referendum on the document.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Iraqi interior ministry said insurgents killed at least five Iraqis and injured another five. The attacks included roadside bombings in Baghdad and the northern city of Samarra, and the assassination of a police official in the capital.

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(Chin reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Alaa al Baldawy and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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

Iraq

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