Impasse on Iraq constitution as new deadline looms

BAGHDAD (AP) — A day before the deadline for the new constitution, Sunni Arabs appealed Sunday to the United States to prevent Shiites and Kurds from pushing a draft through parliament with their consent, warning it would only worsen the crisis in Iraq.

Leaders of the Sunni Arabs, Shiite and Kurdish factions planned make-or-break talks for 11:00am (0700 GMT) Monday, according to officials of all three groups. “I am not optimistic,” Sunni negotiator Kamal Hamdoun said.

“We either reach unanimity or not.” Iraqi officials insisted they would meet the new Monday deadline and present a final document to the National Assembly, dominated by Shiites and Kurds. But the chief government spokesman suggested another delay may be necessary.

The deadline for a new constitution already was extended by a week last Monday after negotiators failed to agree on a number of contentious issues, including federalism, distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, power relationships among the provinces and the role of the Shiite clerical hierarchy in Najaf.

Since then, Shiite and Kurdish negotiators have reportedly agreed on a number of issues. Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, said 97 per cent of the draft had been finished and predicted the document would be forwarded to parliament on time Monday.

Government Spokesman Laith Kubba expressed hope that political leaders would complete the draft in time. If not, Kubba said there were two options: Amend the interim constitution again and extend the deadline or dissolve parliament.

But the Sunni Arabs complained that they have been sidelined in the talks and have only been invited to one session with the other groups since the extension was granted.

By late Sunday, no meeting among all three groups had been scheduled, and Sunni Arab negotiators said they were sticking by their opposition to federalism and their other demands.

“At a time when there are few hours left to announce the draft, we still see no active coordination and seriousness to draft the constitution,” the Sunni Arab negotiators said in a statement.

They urged the United States, the United Nations and the international community to intervene to prevent a draft from moving forward without unanimous agreement among all three factions — a move which “would make the current crisis more complicated.” Another American soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb near the northern city of Tikrit, the US military said. As of Saturday, at least 1,865 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Shiites and Kurds have enough seats in parliament to win approval for a draft even without the Sunnis. Sunni Arabs form an estimated 20 per cent of the national population but hold only 17 of the 275 seats in the national Assembly because so many of them boycotted the January 30 elections.

However, the Sunni Arabs could scuttle the constitution when voters decide whether to ratify it in the October 15 referendum. Under current rules, the constitution would be defeated if it is opposed by two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs form the majority in at least four.

A Sunni Arab backlash could complicate the US strategy of using the political process to lure Sunnis away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency. Washington hopes that a constitution, followed by general elections in December, will help take the steam out of the insurgency and enable the United States and its international partners to begin removing troops next year.

Sunni clerics, who spearheaded the January 30 election boycott, have been urging their followers to register and vote in the October 15 referendum — but against the constitution if it does not satisfy Sunni aspirations.

Some radical groups within the insurgency, notably Al Qaeda’s wing led by terror mastermind Abu Mussab Zarqawi, oppose any constitution as an affront to Islam and have vowed to kill anyone who votes in the referendum.

Also Sunday, the Iraqi government criticised its neighbour Jordan for allegedly “allowing Saddam Hussein’s family to fund a network seeking to destabilise Iraq and reestablish the banned Baath Party.”

“It is regrettable to say that until now there are big numbers of elements, not only former regime elements, but supervisors of some terrorist groups who are in Jordan,” Kubba, the government spokesman, told reporters in Baghdad.

Kubba cited Saddam’s relatives who live in Jordan, where they have “huge amounts of money” to “support… efforts to revive Baath Party organisations.” Kubba did not specify individual family members, but Saddam’s two oldest daughters live in Amman.

Although the Iraqis have frequently complained of subversive activity generated from Syria, Kubba’s remarks were the strongest yet directed against Jordan.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis — including Saddam’s two daughters — have moved to Amman to escape the violence in Iraq.

During an interview later Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Kubba said Iraq wanted good relations with Jordan.

“However, having said that, we are aware there are terrorists using Jordan or coming from Jordan … but more importantly, many ex-regime elements of Saddam’s regime are in Jordan,” he said. “And they have launched a campaign, they are calling back members of the Baath Party to organise meetings and to develop a strategy, and influencing events in Iraq.” It appeared Kubba’s statements were aimed in part at deflecting criticism from Jordan about the possible involvement of Iraqis in subversive operations in Jordan.

Jordanian police have detained an undetermined number of Iraqis as well as other foreign Arab suspects in the Friday rocket attack that barely missed a US warship docked in Aqaba.

“We don’t want Jordan to harm a quarter of a million Iraqis [living in Jordan] because of one Iraqi” involved in Friday’s attack, which killed a Jordanian soldier, Kubba said.

There was no immediate comment from the Jordanian government, which has been seeking to improve relations with its eastern neighbour — once its closest trading partner and only supplier of oil.

In other developments:

— Baghdad city councilman Sabir Issawi was in serious condition after a Saturday ambush that left one of his bodyguards dead and three others wounded, officials said.

— Hundreds of people from the western town of Rawah, 275 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, have fled their homes after days of clashes between US and Iraqi forces and insurgents, residents said Sunday.

— A car bomb went off near a restaurant in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Kazimiyah, killing four civilians and wounding nine, police said.

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