BAGHDAD, Iraq - As the Iraqi Governing Council presses for a more rapid end to the U.S. occupation and a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, a new dispute over who will control the drafting of an Iraqi constitution is bringing to the surface deep divisions among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
A 25-member committee of Iraqi officials, which has been deliberating for two months to recommend a procedure for drafting the constitution, said it was deadlocked.
The committee's report, expected today, is likely to send the complex questions of who should draft a new founding document back to the Governing Council and the occupation authorities. Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell challenged Iraqis to complete a new constitution within six months, but committee members said that goal would be all but impossible to achieve.
In interviews, members of the committee said that religious and ethnic differences were to blame for their deadlock. Neither the occupation powers nor the United Nations, whose presence has been sharply reduced after two bomb attacks on its Baghdad headquarters, has tried, they said, to overcome old suspicions between Sunnis and Shiites that one group will try to dominate the other.
One member said the exercise had in effect become a device to defer a complex political negotiation that is crucial to defusing any potential for civil conflict. The report is expected to bring the issue out into the open.
At the core of the dispute is whether to hold elections for a constitutional assembly, a step that some members fear would allow Shiites to dominate the constitution-writing process.
The top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, insists that a national census be organized to affirm the Shiites' majority of 60 percent to 65 percent of the population, followed by an election for the constitutional assembly.
The committee voted 24-0 on Sept. 8 to endorse this proposal, but a number of members said they had grave reservations and were quietly pushing for some alternative.
Even if procedures can be agreed on, it could take a year or more to draft a constitution, some predict.
"We need time," said Fuad Massoum, a Kurdish leader who is chairman of the committee. "This is why a census is so important. We must reach agreement of all the members of the Iraqi mosaic."
He also said the process would probably require the intervention of the United Nations or a prominent international leader to ensure that each major ethnic and religious group believes its rights have been protected.
The demographic reality of the Shiite majority and the grand ayatollah's insistence on a census have wakened old fears among minorities - Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen. They fear that the Shiites would seek to impose an Islamic state in Iraq, or in other ways weaken the rights of other groups.
Shiite leaders strongly deny this assertion. "They are afraid of the voice of the majority, but we will manage to eradicate their fears," said committee member Jalaluldin al-Saghir, who represents Iraq's largest Shiite religious party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
But Sunnis and Kurds wonder how sincerely the Shiite religious leaders are committed to democracy, as they insist they are, when their party name still calls for "Islamic revolution."
No Sunni member of the committee has openly challenged al-Sistani's call for elections, which was underscored in June when he issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, on the subject.
The reclusive grand ayatollah, who was born in Iran but who rejects the activist political role pursued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, has positioned himself as the key power broker.
He told committee members at a Sept. 11 meeting in Najaf that he had intervened to ensure that Iraq's constitution would protect the rights of all ethnic and religious groups.
At least one Sunni member of the committee asserted during deliberations that Shiites did not have a majority in Iraq. Such claims, for Shiites, incite the old fears of disenfranchisement. Whatever steps are taken on the constitution, "if Sistani doesn't like it, then it is a major crisis," said Kanan Makiya, a constitutional scholar who represents Governing Council leader Ahmad Chalabi in the deliberations.