Leaders extend deadline for Iraq's new constitution

Discord over role of Islam, oil wealth, women's rights


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Minutes before a key deadline, Iraq's leaders decided yesterday to give themselves another week to agree on a new constitution and resolve fundamental disagreements over the future and identity of the country.

After meeting for several hours, a group of senior Iraqi leaders told the National Assembly that they had been unable to resolve a number of critical issues, including the role of Islam, the rights of women, the sharing of the country's vast oil wealth and whether to grant majority Shiite Arabs a semi- independent region in the south.

Minutes before midnight, the leaders of the assembly agreed to amend the country's interim constitution and give themselves until Monday to strike a deal.

There were proclamations of brotherhood and pledges to work together, but the Iraqi leaders said their differences were too vast to bridge by yesterday, the previous deadline.

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

Despite the decision to push back the deadline for the constitution, the dates for the nationwide referendum on the new charter, Oct. 15, and the full-term parliamentary elections, Dec. 15, were unchanged.

The Iraqis failed to break the impasse despite the strenuous efforts of the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who huddled with Iraqi leaders and proposed compromise language throughout the day.

U.S. officials had been eager to have the Iraqis stick to the Aug. 15 deadline, in part because they are concerned that the guerrilla insurgency might take advantage of any stalemate.

U.S. officials hope that progress on the political front will enable them to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq as early as next spring.

Before the extension vote, a National Assembly member, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said yesterday that solutions to difficult issues, including federalism and the status of the city of Kirkuk, would be put off.

"There are issues that will be postponed and addressed in a general way," he said. Asked about the challenges of bringing the Sunni Muslim minority on board, the Shiite and longtime human rights activist said an effort was being made to obtain the best deal possible.

With several questions unresolved, Shiite leaders had said earlier that they were considering asking the National Assembly to approve the document without the agreement of the country's Sunni leaders. Such a move would probably provoke the Sunnis, whose participation in the political process is seen as crucial in the effort to marginalize the Sunni-dominated guerrilla insurgency.

The National Assembly had been scheduled to convene at 6 p.m. to consider the draft. Members were advised that the new starting time was 8 p.m., and then it was delayed again until 10 p.m.

The failure to meet today's deadline and to amend the interim constitution to extend it might have required the dissolving of the National Assembly and new elections, described by Shiite and Kurdish leaders as the worst option.

The negotiations were stalled over a number of issues, including the role of Islam in the state, the rights of women and the distribution of power between central and regional governments. Issues that seemed to be settled, such as the sharing of oil revenue, unraveled.

U.S. officials here had been pushing the Iraqis to meet yesterday's deadline, arguing that any delay in the political process, devised to culminate in democratic elections in December, could strengthen the insurgency.

The disagreements run almost entirely along ethnic and sectarian lines, reflecting the deep divisions among Iraq's majority Shiites and the Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

The principal unresolved issue is whether to grant the country's Shiite majority an autonomous region in the south. Shiite leaders are demanding that nine provinces in southern Iraq - half of the provinces in the country - be allowed to form a largely self-governing region akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.

The leaders of Iraq's Sunni population staunchly oppose the Shiite demands, contending that if the Shiites and the Kurds were both granted wide powers of self-rule, there would be little left of the Iraqi state. The issue of Shiite autonomy is especially significant because the richest oil fields are in the south.

Some Sunni leaders say the Shiite demand for self-rule is largely a cover for hoarding the bulk of Iraq's oil revenue. On Sunday, an agreement on sharing oil revenues between the central and regional governments fell apart, with the Shiites demanding more control.

Under prodding from Khalilzad, the Shiites agreed to hold off on their demands for regional autonomy in exchange for a mechanism in the constitution that would allow them to achieve that autonomy later.

Under the formula favored by the Shiites, provinces could set up autonomous regions if they secured majority votes of their people, the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.

Sunni leaders rejected the proposal, saying it would slow down, but not significantly hamper, the Shiite drive for self-rule.

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