Iraqis reject constitution extension

Leaders resolve to finish by Aug. 15 deadline

5 U.S. soldiers die in bombings


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Under intense U.S. pressure, Iraqi leaders resolved yesterday to finish writing the country's constitution by the middle of this month, even if it means setting aside some of the fiercest disagreements over the future of the Iraqi state.

The 71 Iraqis writing the constitution turned down a proposal to extend the Aug. 15 deadline by six months, an extension that some Iraqis contend is necessary to help bridge the vast differences that divide Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Among the most divisive issues are the rights of women, the role of Islam, and the scope and reach of Kurdish self-rule.

Sticking to the deadline raises the possibility that those issues could be left out of the constitution - an approach favored by the Americans but that many Iraqi leaders say risks leaving important issues unresolved.

Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni member of the drafting committee, said: "Frankly, if we took six more months, it wouldn't make much of a difference."

Some members of the committee were discussing whether to seek a shorter delay of about 30 days. The committee has until the end of today to ask the National Assembly for more time.

The events yesterday unfolded amid renewed efforts by the Americans to persuade the Iraqis to stick to the deadline at almost any cost. Extending the deadline, U.S. officials said, would likely prolong the stalemate, alienate more Iraqis and give a boost to the insurgency.

The more contentious issues could best be dealt with by a legislature, the officials say.

Moreover, the Americans are concerned that if the more extreme versions of the contested provisions make it into the Iraqi constitution, that could set the conditions for civil war.

The U.S. efforts were in evidence yesterday afternoon, when the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, emerged from a meeting with the new U.S. ambassador here, Zalmay Khalilzad, and proclaimed his country would meet the Aug. 15 deadline.

That meeting was the latest in a series of initiatives by senior U.S. officials to play a more active role in helping along the Iraqi democratic process, which they believe is the country's best hope for reconciling the divergent desires of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups.

Keeping the Iraqi political process on track is central to the Bush administration's desire to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops here by early spring. If the process continues apace, a new Iraqi government would be elected in December.

The U.S. effort mirrors the one pursued during the negotiations last year over the interim constitution. That document, which provides the framework for Iraq's transition to full democratic rule, avoided addressing several contentious issues.

But this time around, the U.S. strategy to set aside the most delicate issues is risky. The U.S. pressure appears to have alienated a number of Iraqi leaders.

"The Americans are the ones who want to have this done quickly," said Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi national assembly and a member of the constitutional drafting committee. "And they are doing it so they can begin to implement their exit strategy."

He said that if the major issues dear to the Kurdish leadership are not resolved in the constitution, then the Kurdish people may exercise their right to nullify the document when it is put to Iraqi voters in October.

If a two-thirds majority of voters in three provinces vote against the constitution, it will fail. The Kurds make up a majority in three provinces in northern Iraq.

One issue is the desire of the Kurdish leaders to expand the area under the control of the Kurdish autonomous region. Kurdish leaders say they will insist that a number of majority Kurdish areas, such as Mahmoor in northern Iraq, be turned over to their control. Arab leaders oppose the move.

Another unresolved Kurdish issue is the status of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk, from which tens of thousands of Kurds were expelled by Saddam Hussein's regime and replaced by Arab migrants. The Kurds have been returning home by the thousands, but most of the Arabs have stayed put.

Kurdish leaders say they want the Iraqi constitution to spell out a process by which the "Arabization" of the region will be reversed, the Kurds resettled and a plebiscite held to determine whether the region would come under Kurdish control.

Many Arab leaders oppose Kurdish plans for the region. They say the issue should be left for the National Assembly, which will likely be dominated by Arabs.

Some issues are symbolic but explosive. One is the name of the new Iraqi state; some committee members want to call it the Federal Islamic Republic of Iraq. Others, especially the Kurds, are opposed to the word Islamic in the name because they advocate a stricter separation between religion and the state.

Amid debate over the constitution, violence around Iraq continued. The U.S. military said that five U.S. soldiers had died Saturday in a pair of attacks in Baghdad. One U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded underneath a Humvee that was passing through the neighborhood of Al Doura.

Four Americans were killed when their Humvee struck a roadside bomb in an area southeast of Baghdad International Airport about 11 p.m. Saturday.

In Haswa, a town south of Baghdad, seven people were killed and 12 were wounded when a car laden with explosives blew up near a crowd.

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