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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leaders in Iraq Extend Deadline on Constitution - New York Times

Leaders in Iraq Extend Deadline on Constitution - New York TimesLeaders in Iraq Extend Deadline on Constitution
By DEXTER FILKINS and JAMES GLANZ

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 15 - The Iraqi political process descended toward paralysis on Monday, when leaders failed to meet the deadline for completing the new constitution and voted to give themselves another week to resolve fundamental disagreements over the future and identity of this fractious land.

Several of the leaders said the disagreements, revolving around Islam, oil and the distribution of political power, grew sharper and more numerous as the day dragged on. Some said they were pessimistic that such vast differences could be resolved at all, much less in seven days.

"The differences are huge, and there is not enough determination from the political leaders to solve the problems," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader in the negotiations. "Almost 50 percent of the constitution is not finished yet."

The final push for consensus, held inside the fortified Green Zone, began Monday morning and ended minutes before midnight, when senior Iraqi leaders told the country's elected assembly that they had been unable to reach a deal. The assembly quickly voted to amend the interim constitution, which had decreed Aug. 15 as the deadline, to give the drafters an extra week.

For now, the date for the nationwide referendum on the constitution, Oct. 15, and for parliamentary elections, on Dec. 15, remain unchanged. Yet some Iraqi leaders were already discussing the possibility of dissolving Iraq's National Assembly and holding fresh elections if they fail to agree on a constitution by Monday.

That option would be a last resort, the Iraqis said, partly because of fears that it could throw Iraq into a full-blown political crisis and possibly embolden the insurgency.

"If this delay will solve the problem, it's O.K.," said Haseeb Aref, a Sunni member of the constitutional committee. "But if it will not solve the problem, then we will find it is necessary to dissolve the National Assembly and have a new election."

Kurdish leaders also said they planned to push for a dissolution of the National Assembly and for new elections if a constitution did not emerge by Monday.

President Bush played down the delay and applauded the Iraqis, saying, "Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate."

The Bush administration has been pressing Iraqi leaders to finish the constitution by the deadline, hoping that progress on the political front will eventually allow it to begin reducing the number of American troops here.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Mr. Bush's sentiment, noting that the vote to delay indicated "considerable momentum toward completion" of the draft constitution.

But another administration official, who was not allowed to speak publicly, said "there's a lot of nervousness" within the administration over the situation.

The crucial disagreements were the same ones that for weeks have bedeviled the Iraqis who have been laboring to write a constitution: the importance of Islam in Iraqi law, the rights of women, the division of oil wealth and the desire of Shiite leaders to establish their own semi-independent region in southern Iraq.

At least two other issues, seemingly settled, arose again to intensify the stalemate. Kurdish leaders insisted on the right of three predominantly Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq to secede. And Shiite leaders tried to insert a provision that would declare senior Shiite clerics independent of the government and to be symbols for the nation, a move that raised concerns that the Shiite leaders were planting the seeds for a theocracy.

The disputes reflect the different views of national identity held by the main ethnic and sectarian groups: the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, in the case of the Kurds, and now the Shiites, the disagreements reflect a lack of enthusiasm about the very notion of an Iraqi state.

In the face of the rancor, Iraq's leaders expressed confidence that they would be able to bridge their differences by Monday.

"They need time," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said after the vote. "I think next week will be enough."

The Iraqis failed to break the impasse despite the intense efforts of the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who huddled with Iraqi leaders and proposed compromises throughout the day. Near midnight, Mr. Khalilzad entered the National Assembly chambers with President Jalal Talabani, who introduced him to the members as a "dear brother."

But leaning on the Iraqis to produce a consensus where none may yet exist also raised the risk of exacerbating tensions among the country's major groups. Nearly all of the major disputes over the constitution divide along ethnic and religious lines. Iraqi leaders said there were limits to how far their respective communities would allow them to go in order to make a deal.

"We already have a problem with our people," said Mr. Mutlak, the Sunni leader, speaking of the Shiite demand for an autonomous region. "This is one agreement we cannot make, because if we make it we cannot walk in the street anymore."

As if to underscore American concerns over the dangers of delaying the constitution, a mortar shell, apparently fired by insurgents, exploded just short of the Green Zone as the negotiations unfolded.

Iraqi leaders began meeting at 10 a.m. for what they hoped would be a session to wrap up a few remaining differences. Instead, a plethora of disagreements burst forth.

By the end of the day, the divergence was so great that there was not even a consensus on the main points of disagreement. For example, Haseeb Aref, a Sunni, said he believed that the role that Islamic law should play in drawing up legislation had been settled, but Barham Salih, a Kurd, said delicately that "differences of opinion" remained on the relationship between the state and religion.

Mr. Salih, in turn, said the status of Iraqi Kurdistan as a semiautonomous region had been accepted by all, while other negotiators said they were appalled by last-minute Kurdish demands.

Amid the kaleidoscopic array of claims and counterclaims, a few central disagreements stood out.

The first was the Shiite demand for an autonomous region in southern Iraq that would consist of the nine Shiite-dominated provinces - half of Iraq's provinces. Sunni leaders, and even some secular Shiites, continued to oppose it, saying that it could fatally weaken the nation.

The second sticking point was a renewed push by the Kurds for the right to leave the Iraqi state. Kurdish leaders said their demands were justified by history, as their people have long been brutalized by governments in Baghdad.

"The Arabs and every people on the earth, they have the right to self-determination," said Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish leader. "So what's wrong with it?"

Even issues of a far lesser magnitude, like the question of whether Iraqis should be able to hold dual citizenship, rose again. Likewise, the outlines of an agreement made days earlier on the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth appeared to come apart. The oil discussions broke down as negotiators tried to make almost existential distinctions between known and yet-to-be-discovered reserves.

Perhaps the most highly charged of the day's disagreements involved a renewed Shiite demand that their religious leadership, a council of ayatollahs called the Marjariya, should be declared independent of the Iraqi government.

"The government should not interfere in their affairs," Sheik Khalid al-Atiyya, a prominent Shiite member of the constitutional committee.

But others, including some secular Shiite leaders, regarded the proposal as an improper mixing of the mosque and the state.

"I fear this is a first step in setting up an Islamic state," said Raja Kuzai, a Shiite member of the National Assembly. "The Marjariya should not be in the constitution."

Mr. Salih sought to put a positive face on the messy turn of events by comparing them to the authoritarian predictability of the government that ruled Iraq until 2003.

"It's an historical turning point in Iraqi history after a government that ran the country by fire and steel," Mr. Salih said, adding, "We need to solve our disagreements."

Joel Brinkley contributed reporting from Washington for this article.

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