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Clock ticking on Iraq constitution extension

After receiving a week's extension, Iraqi leaders said Tuesday that key parts of Iraq’s draft constitution that address issues such as the role of Islam and the power of local governments remain undecided.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Key parts of Iraq’s draft constitution that address issues such as the role of Islam and the power of local governments remain undecided, Iraqi leaders said Tuesday.

Parliament voted Monday to give negotiators until Aug. 22 to try to draft the charter. The delay was a strong rebuff of President Bush’s insistence that the Aug. 15 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, shortly after the brief parliament session Monday. “We are keen to have an early constitution, but the constitution should be completed in all of its items.”

Fundamental parts of the charter have not been agreed on. Shiite lawmakers said the unresolved issues were women’s rights, an issue tied to Islam’s role in Iraq, 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 Kurdish and Shiite demands for autonomy.

President Jalal Talabani’s office said no constitutional meetings were scheduled early Tuesday but said lawmakers may resume negotiations later in the day.

Troops, guards clash
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops clashed with guards of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, leaving several guards injured, a statement by the group said Tuesday.

However, an official at Allawi’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to reporters, said the incident occurred Aug. 7 between soldiers and guards near the Iraqi National Accord’s main office in western Baghdad.

He said one guard was seriously wounded and is still in hospital. It was not clear why the group waited more than a week to release the statement.

In another incident, three American soldiers died Monday in south Baghdad when their vehicle overturned into a sinkhole while they were conducting combat operations.

The soldiers were assigned to the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Self-determination sought by Kurds
Kurdish leaders on Tuesday defended their push for self-determination, saying it had been a long-stated demand in talks. Kurds have suggested language giving them eight years within a unified Iraq and after that the right to secede.

“Kurdish politicians have no present intentions to gain independence. But we need self-determination in order to decide our future in case troubles erupt in Iraq in the future,” said Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior official in the Kurdish Democratic Party.

“We are not making surprise or sudden demands, it is the Shiites who are doing so,” said Bakhtiyar, adding that Shiite leaders were pressing to grant special status to clerics. He said the proposal would be “a dangerous thing because every sect will seek orders from its religious leadership and this means that there will be no rule by law or constitution.”

Even if negotiators produce a constitution in the next week, the wide divide over issues are unlikely to dissipate. The majority Shiites are vying for federalism, hoping to create an autonomous region in the south as Kurds have in the north — both areas rich in oil. Minority Sunni Arabs oppose federalism, fearing it could split the country, but some have showed a willingness to compromise.

Bush upbeat
U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the delay, and Bush expressed confidence the Iraqis would reach consensus.

“I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue,” Bush said in a statement. “Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise.”

The United States hopes progress on the political front, including adoption of a democratic constitution, will help deflate the Sunni Arab-led rebellion and enable the Americans and their partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

Nevertheless, the last-minute decision to postpone the deadline raised serious questions about the ability of Iraq’s varied factions to make the necessary political compromises. Some Iraqi citizens were worried about the exposed fractures in the country’s leadership.

“We are disappointed because we risked our lives when we went out to polling stations, but now we see each political bloc searching for its own interests,” said Taha Sabir in Baghdad. “We expected a better life, but we got only many crises such as electricity and fuel shortages.”

If agreement on a constitution is reached, Iraqis will vote around Oct. 15 to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country’s first new government under the new constitution.