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Iraq's constitutional panel rejects extension, vows to meet deadline

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Drafters of the new Iraqi constitution have just two weeks left to resolve a host of deeply divisive issues, including the role of religion in national affairs, the division of power between the central government and provinces, and the official ethnic identity of the country.

On Monday, the drafting committee passed up a final chance to request a delay, pledging to work "day and night" to finish by the Aug. 15 deadline.

Sheik Homam Hamoodi, chairman of the drafting committee, said the 30-day extension that several members proposed Sunday was "unanimously rejected." He added that leading Iraqi political factions would meet later this week to resolve their differences.

"We expect that by the 12th of August, we'll be able to solve these problems," Hamoodi said.

Earlier Monday, Hamoodi told the Iraqi National Assembly that he'd recommended an extension to sort out the differences, a decision that was reversed under U.S. pressure. Monday was the deadline for the committee to ask for an extension.

"The Americans had a big role in the decision not to delay presenting the draft of the constitution," said Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician on the drafting committee. "They didn't want it postponed. ... But if we do it on time without the proper finishing touches, that would be very bad."

The Bush administration is anxious to keep the political process in Iraq moving along, partly in hopes of creating conditions for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. Elections for a permanent government are slated for December, and U.S. officials have spoken of a possible drawdown of U.S. forces next spring.

Though drafters say nearly 90 percent of the document is complete, the outstanding issues go to the heart of whether the constitution can help hold the nation together:

_The role of Islam in legislation is contentious because conservative Shiites and some Sunnis believe Iraqi laws should be based on Sharia, or Islamic law. The committee already has decided that no law will contradict Islam, but it hasn't worked out the implications of that decision on, for example, women's rights or the sale of alcohol. Traditionally secular, the Kurds support Islamic law as only one of many sources of legislation.

_Federalism, or the division of powers between the central government and Iraq's 18 provinces, is another knotty issue. The Kurds want a greater say in governing their semi-autonomous northern region, while Shiites in southern provinces want to band together to form a similar region. Many Sunni Arabs oppose the move, saying it could fragment Iraq.

_Drafters have agreed that all Iraqis should benefit from the country's oil production, but so far they've failed to negotiate a formula for distributing the wealth. Oil resources are concentrated in Kurdish and Shiite areas.

_Kurds want their language recognized alongside Arabic as an official language of Iraq. They also bristle at the official description of Iraq as part of the "Arab world."

_Other sticking points include whether Iraqis should be allowed to hold dual citizenship and how to pick an official name for the country. The Kurds insist on the "Federal Republic of Iraq," while many Arabs want the nation to be called the "Islamic Republic of Iraq."

Last week, newly arrived U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad met with members of the drafting committee and reiterated the Bush administration's message that a delay would slow Iraq's political momentum and give room for insurgents to strike. On Sunday, he also prodded the process along during talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Even U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a surprise trip to Baghdad last week to urge the drafting committee to finish its work.

"We have not been involved with the members of parliament in terms of any pressure. We have discussed with Iraqi leaders the issues related to the constitution. ... We think it is important that every effort be made to get a good constitution and on time," Khalilzad said at a news conference Monday.

While some drafters welcomed the Americans' efforts as supportive of the process, others deemed it as meddling that could enshrine crucial measures into a draft before proper debate on the issues. Some drafters complained that the perception of U.S. pressure could only damage the legitimacy of the process.

"The constitution might solve the government's problems, but it does not solve the problems Iraqis have with the occupying forces. The constitution is not Moses' cane," a magical tool to solve impossible problems, said Salman al-Jumeili, one of the few Sunni Arabs on the committee. "Some issues might be postponed or left out, to be applied by the next government."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Alaa al Baldawy contributed to this report.)


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