Iraq constitution drafters get extra week

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s parliament, pushed to the brink of a midnight deadline, gave negotiators an extra week on Monday to complete a draft constitution after weeks of intensive talks failed to bridge sectarian and ethnic rifts.

Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders now have seven more days to agree the extent regions can have autonomy from Baghdad and how they will share oil and resources.

If they fail, parliament will again face a dissolution crisis and the prospect of new elections in an atmosphere poisoned by sectarian and ethnic strife.

Senior politicians put on a brave face — “come on, this is a success; we’re not killing each other,” said Kurdish Cabinet Minister Barham Saleh. But the delay was a setback to hopes, in Washington as well as Baghdad, that a timely accord would send a signal that might sap support for the Sunni Arabs’ insurgency.

In the end, refusal by representatives of the Sunni minority to grant wide regional autonomy — and control of oil income — to the southern Shiite majority appeared to break a deal.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite Islamist, said the sticking points had been federalism and sharing out revenues.

Kurdish autonomy, secured de facto after the 1991 Gulf War, has been less of an issue but other groups are wary of demands from some Kurds to push for a possibility of outright secession.

Just an hour before parliament would have been forced to recognise that it had failed to draft a constitution by August 15 and so must face dissolution under a US-backed interim law, negotiators went to the chamber to ask for 10 more days.

Delayed again by a typical Baghdad power blackout, and with nerves frayed after what had sounded like mortar blasts nearby earlier in the evening, the National Assembly voted unanimously for a motion from the speaker to grant just a week, to August 22.

It was 20 to midnight (1940 GMT) when the vote was passed.

Brave face

“It was no disappointment because we have done a lot,” said President Jalal Talabani, who has chaired intensive talks this past week. “This delay will not shake the confidence of the Iraqi people, which stands behind its parliament.

“It must be carefully drafted to avoid mistakes in future.”

He dismissed talk of disappointment in Washington, where President George W. Bush has been urging compromise as part of his plans to stabilise Iraq and start bringing troops home.

“We are grateful to the Bush administration,” said Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla commander who fought Saddam Hussein.

Bush’s envoy, Afghan-born US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has closely shepherded intensive talks chaired by Talabani in the past week. He was present for the parliamentary vote but left the chamber quickly, declining to talk to reporters.

The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), an interim constitution drawn up under US occupation last year, called for the interim legislature to be dissolved and elections by December for a new constitution-drafting body if no draft permanent constitution was ready by August 15. This legislation was amended to set the new August 22 deadline by Monday’s vote.

Quite what will happen if that deadline is not met is unclear. Few Iraqi politicians want to see the process collapse.

If a constitution is agreed, it will go to a referendum by October 15 and a full-term parliament would be elected by December.

Rival demands

The Sunni Arab minority, who dominated Iraq under Saddam and long before that, are wary of ceding control of northern and southern oilfields to Kurds and the Shiite majority and are demanding guarantees of a strong central government.

Shiite Islamist calls for Islam to have a bigger role in Iraqi law have also been a source of friction — and have alarmed some minority groups and women’s rights activists.

Quite how homogenous and representative of their communities the negotiating teams are is unclear, leaving plenty of scope for popular opposition to any deal. Some radical Shiites have warned they will reject any compromise that disappoints them.

Sunnis’ failure to take part in large numbers in January’s election to the interim legislature means they are represented in the constitutional negotiations by politicians from outside the assembly. Some officials have suggested that, if there is no consensus deal, the Shiites and Kurds in parliament could use their overwhelming majority there to bypass Sunni objections.

Sunni leaders, tens of thousands of whose community are engaged in violent revolt against the new administration and the US forces supporting it, say they would resist that fiercely.

Saadoun Zubaidi, a former ambassador and translator for Saddam and a member of the constitution drafting committee, told reporters the assembly vote was a snub to Bush’s timetable.

“Rushing the constitution will result in a house of cards or a time bomb,” he said, warning of civil war and the break-up of Iraq if rival communities faced unpalatable terms. “For once, the national assembly has stood up to George Bush.”


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