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Iraq constitution drafters get 7-day extension

Iraq's parliament voted Monday to extend a deadline for negotiators to present a draft constitution by one week to Aug. 22.
National Assembly Extends Constitution Deadline
Iraq's National Assembly votes unanimously Monday in Baghdad for a seven-day extension for the constitution draft, on the eve of the original deadline. Pool / Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Iraqi leaders failed to meet a key deadline Monday to finish a new constitution, stalling over the same fundamental issues of power-sharing — including federalism, oil wealth and Islam’s impact on women — that have bedeviled the country since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Just 20 minutes before midnight, parliament voted to give negotiators another seven days, until Aug. 22, to try to draft the charter. The delay was a strong rebuff of the Bush administration’s insistence that the deadline be met, even if some issues were unresolved, to maintain political momentum and blunt Iraq’s deadly insurgency.

“We should not be hasty regarding the issues, and the constitution should not be born crippled,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, after the parliament session, which lasted a bare 15 minutes. “We are keen to have an early constitution, but the constitution should be completed in all of its items.”

Al-Jaafari’s statement came after an apparent deal late Monday on all but two key issues fell apart, according to several Shiite politicians.

Issues: Women’s rights, Kurdish autonomy
The Shiites said the unresolved issues were women’s rights, an issue inextricably tied to Islam’s role, and the right of Kurds to eventually secede from the country. But al-Jaafari said the key stumbling blocks were distribution of oil wealth and federalism, another, broader way of stating the Kurdish autonomy issue.

The confusion over outstanding issues — as well as negotiators’ seeming inability to agree even on what they disagreed on — left unclear whether they will now reopen talks on all issues or just focus on a few.

Even the name of the country 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.

Bush, Rice praise process
U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the delay, and the White House expressed confidence the Iraqis would reach consensus.

In a statement released by the presidential press office from President Bush’s ranch in Texas, the president said he applauded “the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue.”

“We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at a State Department briefing shortly after the delay was confirmed.  

“They are working on a comprehensive document and have made substantial progress,” Rice said of the framers of the Iraqi constitution. Rice sidestepped questions about the possible repercussions if the constitution isn't finished by the new deadline.

“They’re going to finish this,” Rice said. “I don’t think we do any good speculating beyond that, but they are focused on a course that will bring this to conclusion within seven days. They are really committed to a document that they can believe in.”

U.S. envoy confident
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was in the hall as parliament gathered. He wore a broad grin, apparently anticipating a vote on the charter.

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.

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.”

Partial agreement
Earlier, two Shiite officials said the committee had agreed on a draft constitution to be submitted by the deadline, but that the document would leave two issues for the legislative body to decide.

Nasar al-Rubaie, a member of the committee drafting the charter, said the document would be handed over to the 275-member National Assembly late Monday for a decision on the two unresolved issues, which he did not specify.

Jalaldin al-Saghir, a Shiite member of parliament, said the same thing but refused to identify the two remaining issues.

"An agreement has been reached on the constitution and it was signed and it will be handed to parliament," he said. "There are two points that the National Assembly will have to solve."

Violence continues
Meanwhile, the insurgency pressed ahead, with at least 13 people killed in scattered attacks, including a barber who police said was shot to death as he walked to his parlor in southwest Baghdad.

Barbers in the country have been targeted by fundamentalists who accuse them of violating a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings that say men should keep their beards long.

Two large explosions also were heard in Baghdad's "Green Zone" as the legislators were meeting to consider the constitution.

Canadian abducted, slain
A Canadian man pursuing a business venture in Iraq has been abducted and killed, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said Monday. He urged Canadians in Iraq to leave, saying “the situation remains volatile and the government of Canada cannot provide consular assistance to Canadian citizens in distress.”

Martin identified the victim as Zaid Meerwali, who also held Iraqi citizenship.

“Canada vehemently condemns this barbaric crime, and remains committed to working both bilaterally and multilaterally to help build a prosperous and peaceful democracy in Iraq,” Martin said in a statement.

There was no immediate word from Canadian or Iraqi officials on any suspects in the case, but hundreds of foreigners and Iraqis have been seized by insurgents fighting to drive U.S.-led forces out of the country.

Canada has not contributed troops to the coalition forces in Iraq, and opposed the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country.

Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad, said the government was informed of the kidnapping and murder by Meerwali’s family.