Iraqis remain hopeful about constitution

Deadline was extended

divisive issues include oil revenue, federalism

August 17, 2005|By Ashraf Khalil | Ashraf Khalil,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - After granting themselves an extra week to finish drafting a constitution, Iraqi legislators took a break yesterday from marathon negotiations and expressed optimism that lingering disagreements could soon be resolved.

"I expect that even before the seven days, the constitution will be finalized," said President Jalal Talabani. "Only a few items are pending."

Monday was the deadline for completing the document, but drafters were unable to agree on such divisive issues as women's rights, the distribution of oil revenue, the role of Islamic law and whether to establish a federal system.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was heavily involved in the negotiations, said yesterday that he was disappointed by the delay, but he praised Iraqi politicians for the compromises they have made and expressed confidence that the extra week would produce an agreement.

Although Talabani and others characterized the remaining disputes as more technical than substantial, deep rifts remain.

Sunni Arab representatives are strongly opposed to the desire among Kurds and Shiites to establish semi-independent states around a weak Baghdad government.

Shiite negotiators remain determined to secure the same level of autonomy for their southern provinces as the Kurdish-dominated north has had since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

If the disputes can't be resolved within a week, legislators could again extend the deadline. But doing so could seriously damage the public credibility of the process and jeopardize plans to hold an Oct. 15 national referendum on the constitution. If voters approved the document then, parliamentary elections would follow in December.

All participants have ruled out another extension.

If disputes remain unresolved Monday, other options include dissolving the government and holding new elections, deferring disputed issues and passing a constitution over the objections of some negotiators.

Sunni representatives would welcome new elections, which could allow them to mobilize a community that largely stayed away from January's elections and left Kurds underrepresented in the government.

Khalilzad said he doesn't think that a parliament with more elected Sunnis would produce smoother negotiations. "I don't think it would change the issues," he said. "How would the fundamentals change?"

Shiite legislators have issued veiled warnings that they might use their parliamentary majority to force through a constitution if Sunnis remain opposed to a federalist system.

That could trigger a Sunni campaign to defeat the constitution in the October referendum.

Hussein Sharistani, deputy parliament speaker and a senior Shiite negotiator, played down that possibility, saying, "We don't think any three governorates will reject this draft."

The protracted deadlock has frustrated ordinary Iraqis, who have simmered through a third summer of war with unreliable supplies of electricity and water.

"I was so disappointed, and I feel that the people who have power in this country are not trustworthy," said Omar Ibrahim, a 28-year-old Baghdad computer technician. "This delay does not affect me personally, but it affects Iraqis in general. We have not noticed any changes. Nothing is improving, especially public services. ... We are only getting neglect."

In other developments, more than a dozen Iraqis were injured when a crowd gathered on the roof of a Baghdad hotel was fired on before dawn yesterday. Witnesses said a U.S. helicopter fired without warning. A U.S. military spokesman said the United States had no information on the incident.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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