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Iraqi leaders remain deadlocked over new constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi leaders pledged that a draft of the country's new constitution will be ready by a Monday deadline as marathon negotiating sessions continued late Sunday with little progress in breaking deadlocks over the powers of the central government and the role of religion.

With the clock ticking and U.S. pressure mounting, Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari and other politicians insisted Sunday that a draft would arrive on time.

"We will get over these problems by the strong will and good intentions I'm feeling from Iraqi political figures," al Jaafari said in a statement. "I am optimistic."

U.S. officials have been increasingly vocal in their desire to keep Iraq's political process on track in hopes of quelling the country's stubborn insurgency and paving a road out for American troops. U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that the failure to produce a draft on Monday would embolden Sunni Muslim rebels and undermine the elected government in the eyes of Iraqis who risked their lives to vote in the January elections.

Iraqi leaders shuttled between meetings all weekend in an effort to reach agreements that satisfy Iraq's three main factions: Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. If they fail to produce a draft on time, Iraq's elected government will dissolve and new elections will be held, according to the country's transitional laws.

Senior negotiators from all three groups said that an 11th-hour breakthrough appeared unlikely, and on Sunday they were examining options for extending the talks.

One possibility under discussion involves handing a partially completed draft to the head of the Iraqi legislature, who'd wait a week before presenting it to lawmakers for a vote. Described as the "back-door option" by one senior Iraqi politician, the move would satisfy the deadline, but it also would buy the drafting committee another week to settle the disputes.

Another option would be to defer the fiercely disputed issue of how to divide authority between a central government and Iraq's provinces until after the next elections, which are scheduled for December. The result would be a document that serves as little more than a blueprint for a new government without defining Iraq's national identity, the role of Islam and regional powers.

A third alternative is to seek an extension of the deadline by asking the Iraqi National Assembly to amend the transitional laws to give the drafters more time to negotiate.

"The Iraqis tell me that they can finish it and they will finish it tomorrow," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "There are options, obviously, should they need it, but at this point, my information is—and I've just come from a meeting with the Iraqi leaders—that they intend to finish it tomorrow."

Jonathan Morrow, an American adviser to the drafting committee from the United States Institute of Peace, said a vaguely worded draft would be hard to sell in the national referendum on the constitution that's scheduled for October, especially in the semiautonomous Kurdish north.

Members of the long oppressed but now influential Kurdish minority want the constitution to enshrine their hard-won gains in autonomy and to spell out their independence on matters relating to oil wealth and petroleum development.

"It's about trust," Morrow said Sunday. "The Kurds, it seems, are not prepared to depend on Baghdad for their income."

Hundreds of Kurds marched in the streets of northern cities Sunday in support of a referendum on Kurdish independence. Carrying placards that read "No to the permanent constitution, yes to self-determination," demonstrators also demanded the immediate repatriation of the thousands of Kurds who were pushed out of the northern city of Kirkuk under the former regime. They also called for strict separation of religion and state, a clear definition of Kurdistan's borders and stringent measures to uproot members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party from government positions.

"The aim of the referendum movement is to pressure the government into listening to the citizens' demands," said Abdul Kadir Saeed, a Kurdish writer who joined the demonstration. "We express our views in a civilized way, without resorting to violence. If the government doesn't listen to us, we will demonstrate and strike."

Under a federal system, Iraq's 18 provinces could unite to form regions with a great deal of independence from the central government. The Kurds already have a powerful, oil-rich region in the north, and Shiite leaders in southern territories want to build a similar region to protect the vast southern oil reserves and create what's been described as a Shiite super-state that includes some of the holiest sites in Islam.

Sunni Arab leaders, whose constituents are scattered mostly among the resource-starved central and western territories, complain that such a plan would isolate them and lead to the fragmentation of Iraq.

One solution that resurfaced over the weekend would be a law saying a region could consist of no more than three provinces. Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders tentatively agreed to the plan, negotiators said, but Shiites balked at what they viewed as efforts to prevent them from creating a large, homogenous southern state.

The role of Islam is another multifaceted sticking point. Though conservative Shiites have agreed to drop the word "Islamic" from the official name of the country, which is tentatively the Federal Republic of Iraq, they insist that Islam must be the main source of legislation and not merely an inspiration. Homam Hamoodi, the Shiite cleric who leads the drafting committee, confirmed Sunday that all parties had agreed that no law could contradict Islam.

More prickly religious issues remain. On Sunday, committee members debated whether the constitution should enshrine a role for the marjaiya, the highest Shiite religious authority, or leave it out. Also on the table is whether Iraq's holy shrines should be given special protection, and to what extent Islamic law should determine matters of inheritance, marriage, divorce and other family issues.

"Personal status law will be left to every sect or religion to regulate its own affairs, and those who do not want that can resort to civil court," said Jalaladin al Saghir, a high-ranking cleric from the dominant Shiite bloc, describing a tentative agreement on Islam's role in family law.

Shiites, the majority sect that dominates the government, are growing increasingly frustrated with their bargaining partners, but demographics could force them to compromise. The Kurds have the three provinces necessary to veto the constitution in the October referendum.

It's unclear whether Sunni Arabs have enough of a majority in three provinces to mount the two-thirds rejection needed to kill the constitution in a referendum. However, the threat that Sunnis can summon the necessary votes might be enough to temper Shiite and Kurdish attempts to push through a draft that ignores Sunni interests.

Sunnis want to see the disputed issues shelved until after the next elections, in which they'll presumably have a larger voter turnout, more national assembly seats and a larger voice in negotiations. They haven't ruled out a walkout if they feel their demands are overlooked, several Sunni leaders said, but they added that it would be a last resort.

"We don't want to boycott," said Naseer al Aani, a Sunni on the drafting committee. "We are here because of people's demands to have us participate in the political process."


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Alaa al Baldawy, Mohammed al Dulaimy, Ahmed Mukhtar, and Saeed Omer contributed to this report.)


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