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Iraqis Extend Deadline for Constitution

Times Staff Writers

Iraqi officials facing a midnight deadline and intense pressure from the Bush administration failed Monday to finish writing a new constitution, stumbling on long-standing differences over the division of power and oil money, the role of religion and the status of women.

The National Assembly, summoned for an extraordinary session, voted just half an hour before midnight to extend by a week the Aug. 15 deadline for drafting the constitution. The decision was a setback for the U.S., which fears that falling behind schedule will encourage the deadly insurgency and send a message that Iraq is adrift.

U.S. Embassy staff members, some of whom had been predicting a successful end to weeks of haggling and a frantic final-day push for consensus among top party leaders, were visibly deflated. Some Iraqi legislators looked equally dismayed.

“Despite our great efforts, we couldn’t reach a solution that satisfied everybody,” parliament Speaker Hachim Hassani said.

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Instead, a diverse array of Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs, including turbaned religious leaders, robed tribal elders and urbane secularists, reached the consensus that more time was needed and tried to put the best spin on it. If no agreement is reached, new parliamentary elections will have to be called and the process will start over.

“It’s disappointing. I can’t deny that. But I have to emphasize the significance of what we’re doing,” said Barham Salih, a Kurd who is Iraq’s minister of planning and development cooperation. “We are disagreeing. We are failing to reach compromises. But we are not killing each other.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has tried to nudge the factions together and last week presented his own compromise positions on key points, issued a statement praising the hard work of the negotiators and hailing the parliament for unanimously deciding to give the drafting committee more time.

“I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days,” he said.

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In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that even though the Iraqis had failed to meet the deadline, the extension was legal. Iraqis are to hold a referendum on the constitution in October.

President Bush, who is on vacation in Texas, said he was confident that the Iraqis would meet the new deadline.

Analysts said that if Iraq’s constitutional commission was able to craft a compromise in the next week, the delay would turn out to be a small problem. However, the issues still to be solved are so daunting that one more week may not be enough to bridge the gaps.

Salih said the negotiators remained deadlocked on many of the same points that have persisted for more than a month: the importance of Islamic law, the desire of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south to establish a federal system with a weak central government, and the all-important issue of how to distribute Iraq’s considerable oil revenues.

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Sunni Arab representatives are firmly against the creation of a semi-independent southern Shiite state. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds continue to haggle over the distribution of oil wealth. Secularists and women’s activists are fighting against a Shiite push to place marriage, divorce and inheritance law under religious authority.

Some legislators characterized the coming week of negotiations as crucial to the survival of the current government.

Ali Dabagh, a Shiite member of the committee writing the constitution, said that if there was no consensus by Aug. 22, dissolving the government and holding new elections would become more likely.

“I think if a week is not enough, they will never reach any agreement,” he said.

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Deputy parliament Speaker Hussein Shahristani promised there would be no further extensions, but he said that didn’t mean he guaranteed consensus.

Shahristani, a senior Shiite negotiator, struck a defiant tone, saying that the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance held a parliamentary majority and was satisfied with the current draft. He characterized the delay as an act of Shiite benevolence, and hinted that if Sunni and Kurdish negotiators didn’t soften their positions, the alliance would pass it despite their objections.

“Out of respect for the others who asked for a few days’ extension to finalize their thoughts ... we have given them that last chance,” he said.

Saadoun Zubaidi, a member of the Sunnis’ National Dialogue Council, said that given the lack of consensus, the negotiators could have given up, passed a watered-down document deferring the hard decisions or requested the delay.

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“Three bad choices, and we like to think we chose the least destructive of them, the decision that is the least unacceptable for the Iraqi people,” he said. Zubaidi praised the vote to delay as a “courageous” act of defiance against the steady U.S. pressure for an agreement by Aug. 15.

“It shows we’re not afraid of George Bush and not afraid of his desires to complete the text on the 15th and say, ‘Look here, we need more time,’ ” Zubaidi said.

Hassani, the parliament speaker, also cited the decision as evidence of democracy that proves that “the Iraqis are the ones writing their constitution.”

The vote capped a disjointed day of rumors, false starts and tedium.

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More than 200 National Assembly members gathered in the Baghdad Convention Center at 6 p.m. but ended up languishing for hours, exchanging shifting theories about just when the draft would finally be presented.

No-smoking signs posted throughout the building were cheerfully ignored as the expected draft presentation time slipped to 8 p.m., then 9, then 10.

In the end, Iraq’s elected legislators, and even the members of the constitutional committee, were reduced to bystanders as the real debate took place behind doors closed even to them.

“We haven’t played much of a role in drafting the constitution,” Shiite committee member Hunayn Qaddu said with a laugh. “We feel that we have been neglected. We have not been consulted on important issues. We are eventually responsible to the Iraqi people. We have to reflect their needs and their aspirations. It’s very unfortunate.”

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Others were more sanguine. Kurdish poet laureate and legislator Khosrow Jaff said he planned to vote whichever way he was directed by his party leadership.

“The people elected parties, not people,” he said.

As darkness fell, some legislators worried about whether it would be safe to leave the fortified Green Zone for their homes well after the Baghdad streets normally empty.

“It’s not fair to us,” said Rajaa Khuzai, a former member of the defunct U.S.-appointed Governing Council. “Tonight we would be very easy targets.”

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After hours of waiting, legislators saw events in the convention center move quickly. At 11, the top leadership arrived, including Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, President Jalal Talabani and former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Within half an hour, the delay had been approved by an overwhelming show of hands, and the parliamentarians rushed from the chamber to make it home before the midnight curfew imposed in the capital.

By 12:30, the only politicians left in the convention center were Shahristani, doing his fifth straight television interview -- and Zubaidi and his fellow National Dialogue Council representatives conferring with U.S. Embassy officials on how to get home safely.

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Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin, Borzou Daragahi and Suhail Ahmad contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sticking points

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Disputes about policy remain in four significant areas. The three main groups involved are the majority Shiites, dominated by religious parties; the Sunni Arabs, who include both secular and religious factions and who enjoyed a dominant position under Saddam Hussein; and the ethnic Kurds, who are largely Sunni but also secular and who have a semiautonomous state in northern Iraq.

* FEDERALISM: The three main communities in Iraq have divergent ideas about the amount of power that should rest with the central government. The Kurds, who have had a semi-independent state since 1991, want to preserve that autonomy. Many Shiites believe that the provinces in which they are the majority should be allowed to have the same autonomy as the Kurds, if residents want it. The Sunnis generally oppose moving power away from a highly centralized government structure. They accept Kurdish autonomy but strongly oppose a parallel Shiite region in the south.

* OIL REVENUE: The distribution of oil revenue, which accounts for more than 95% of Iraq’s income, is tied to the regional autonomy issue. The Kurds and Shiites want to keep a portion of the revenue generated in their areas instead of sending it all to Baghdad. Sunnis fear that would deprive them of money because little oil is produced in the three provinces where most Sunnis live.

* ISLAM: Early drafts of the constitution envisioned sharply different roles for Islam. The Shiites wanted to elevate the status of Islamic law and included a number of provisions that gave deference to clerics over secular institutions. The Kurds, who are overwhelmingly secular, wanted only a brief mention saying the faith was a source for the country’s laws.

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* WOMEN: Rights activists fear the inclusion of language that would replace civil laws passed in 1959 for domestic matters -- divorce, marriage and inheritance -- with Sharia, or Islamic law. Under Sharia, for instance, daughters get no more than half the amount sons receive from a father’s estate. Religious parties argue that, overall, such laws treat women better than secular laws.

Source: Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times


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