Iraqis fail to meet constitution deadline

Negotiators get another 7 days to reach accord

By Associated Press Aug 16, 2005, 12:00am MDT

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi leaders failed to meet a key deadline Monday to finish a new constitution, stalling over the same fundamental issues of power-sharing — including federalism, oil wealth and Islam’s impact on women — that have bedeviled the country since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Just 20 minutes before midnight, parliament voted to give negotiators another seven days, until Aug. 22, to try to draft the charter. The delay was a strong rebuff of the Bush administration’s insistence that the deadline be met, even if some issues were unresolved, to maintain political momentum and blunt Iraq’s deadly insurgency.

“We should not be hasty regarding the issues, and the constitution should not be born crippled,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, after the parliament session, which lasted a bare 15 minutes. “We are keen to have an early constitution, but the constitution should be completed in all of its items.”

Al-Jaafari’s statement came after an apparent deal late Monday on all but two key issues fell apart, according to several Shiite politicians.

The Shiites said the unresolved issues were women’s rights, which is inextricably tied to Islam’s role, and the right of Kurds to eventually secede from the country. But al-Jaafari said the key stumbling blocks were distribution of oil wealth and federalism, another, broader way of stating the Kurdish autonomy issue.

The confusion over outstanding issues — as well as negotiators’ seeming inability to agree even on what they disagreed on — left unclear whether they will now reopen talks on all issues or just focus on a few.

U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the delay, and President Bush expressed confidence the Iraqis would reach consensus.

“I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue,” he said in a statement. “Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise.”

The United States hopes progress on the political front, including adoption of a democratic constitution, will help deflate the Sunni Arab-led rebellion and enable the Americans and their partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

Nevertheless, the last-minute decision to postpone the deadline raised serious questions about the ability of Iraq’s varied factions to make the necessary political compromises.

Television cameras were at the ready as parliament convened late Monday to consider any final, undecided issues and debate the entire charter. In a sign of Washington’s close involvement, the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was in the hall as parliament gathered. He wore a broad grin, apparently anticipating a vote on the charter.

As the session was about to start, electricity went out for about three minutes. When lights came back on, Khalilzad, al-Jaafari and others were surrounded by their bodyguards — an indication of the persistent threat of violence in Iraq.

Afterward, the U.S. ambassador blamed the setback partly on a three-day sandstorm that prevented delegates from meeting. “Iraqi leaders determined that a seven-day extension was needed to resolve remaining issues and to fine-tune the language of the draft to avoid errors,” he said. “I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days.”

Even if negotiators produce a constitution in the next week, the wide divide over issues such as federalism, oil revenues and Islam’s role are unlikely to dissipate. The majority Shiites also have a stake in federalism, hoping to create an autonomous region in the south as Kurds have in the north — both areas rich in oil. Minority Sunni Arabs oppose federalism, while showing some willingness to compromise.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the constitutional committee, told state-run Iraqiya television: “We still have our reservations regarding federalism, but that was not the only reason for the postponement, because there were big points of disagreements, not between us and others but between the others themselves.”

Sunni Arabs are believed to be the biggest supporters of the insurgency, causing Washington to push hard for their demands to be addressed to lure them from the fighting.

The impasse left open the possibility that Iraq — a patchwork of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis put together as a nation by the British after World War I — could still tumble into a civil war.

It also blunted the rapid progress toward democracy that Iraqis have accomplished so far, from the vote last Jan. 30 that installed the nation’s first elected government to the efforts to share power among the Shiite majority, the strong Kurdish group and the smaller, disgruntled Sunni Arab faction.

If agreement on a constitution is reached, however, Iraqis will vote around Oct. 15 to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country’s first new government under the new constitution.

Kurdish leaders were the ones to propose the deadline extension, and their demands in recent weeks have stymied consensus.

The Kurds had suggested language giving them eight years within a unified Iraq and after that the right to secede. Shiites told them they should decide now whether they want to stay within Iraq.

The issue of women’s rights was just as complicated and undecided, falling under Shiite demands that Islam be the main source of legislation. Under Islamic law, or sharia, women might not receive the same share of inheritance and cannot initiate divorce.

In contrast, officials had said that agreements had been reached previously on issues such as distribution of the country’s oil revenues, the country’s name and the issue of whether Iraqis could hold dual citizenship.

But al-Jaafari said oil revenues were still up for grabs. And even the name was unclear: Officials have said they were deciding on either the Republic of Iraq or Federal Republic of Iraq, but had ruled out the idea of putting any Islamic reference in the country’s name.

Contributing: Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub, Omar Sinan