BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Political groups representing Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs called yesterday for new delays in approving a national constitution, complaining that they had been cut out of final-hour negotiations between Shiite Muslims and Kurds and appealing to U.S. and U.N. officials to intervene.
The nation's transitional National Assembly is scheduled to approve a final draft of Iraq's first democratic constitution today after missing last Monday's deadline, voting instead to give themselves one more week to seek compromises on key issues.
Shiites and Kurds, both long oppressed during Saddam Hussein's regime by a strong central government dominated by Sunnis, have written a draft that creates a federal system allowing for greater regional autonomy. Sunnis have staunchly opposed building such federalism into the constitution, fearing it would lead to the fracturing of Iraq into separate countries.
"We need more time to negotiate," Sheik Abdel Nasser Janabi, a leading Sunni negotiator, said yesterday. "I see an attempt to exclude the Arab Sunnis."
Hussein, who faces trial soon on charges that he massacred fellow Muslims, promised in a letter published yesterday to sacrifice himself for the cause of Palestine and Iraq, and he urged Arabs to follow his path.
The letter, which was delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross to a friend of Hussein's now living in Jordan, was believed to be the first letter the ousted leader has sent to a non-family member since his capture by U.S. forces in December 2003.
"My soul and my existence is to be sacrificed for our precious Palestine and our beloved, patient and suffering Iraq," said the letter, published in two Jordanian newspapers.
Yesterday, Shiites and Kurds appeared to be moving toward using their majority in the National Assembly to approve a draft of the constitution over Sunni objections. Although some Shiite negotiators were publicly expressing hope that they would achieve a consensus with Sunnis and meet today's deadline, Sunni leaders complained that they have only been invited to one meeting during the past week.
"The meetings have not been serious ones, and time is running out," Sunni negotiator Saleh Mutlaq said. "We do not want a constitution that is molded in the final moments and then thrust upon us to sign."
In response, Sunnis and some disgruntled Shiites are threatening to take the fight to the polls and try to defeat the constitution when it is presented to Iraqi voters in an Oct. 15 referendum.
"Everyone is getting ready for a big battle," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad.
A source close to the talks, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of negotiations, said that Shiite and Kurdish representatives had basically abandoned hopes of a three-way deal. The Sunni position, he said, is "directly contrary to what the others want."
Even acting on their own, Kurds and Shiites would need to reach agreement on several difficult issues, chiefly related to how to divide Iraq's oil wealth. Kurds seek to specify in the constitution how oil revenue would be divided between the national and local governments. Shiites prefer to leave such details out of the documents, according to Saad Jawad, a Shiite leader.
Last week's vote of approval also was delayed by debate over women's rights and the degree to which Islamic Sharia law would be imposed in Iraq.
If negotiators do not reach an agreement today, legislators can again approve a delay. The National Assembly would be disbanded, however, if it fails to approve a constitution to put before the voters. New parliamentary elections would be conducted by the end of the year, and the process of writing a charter would start anew -- a delay strongly opposed by the Bush administration.
In recent days, Sunni Arab groups have organized protest rallies in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad, where thousands of their followers have chanted their opposition to any draft that does not take into account their concerns.
In Mosul, the Muslim Scholars Association is preparing a religious edict, or fatwa, that would order Sunni followers to vote "no" in referendum if clerics determine that the final draft "violates Islamic fundamentals," according to Othman Ali Khalid, attorney for the chapter.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.