After granting themselves an extra week to finish drafting a constitution, Iraqi legislators took a break Tuesday from marathon negotiations and expressed optimism that lingering disagreements could soon be resolved.
“I expect that even before the seven days, the constitution will be finalized,” said President Jalal Talabani. “Only a few items are pending.”
Drafters had faced a Monday deadline for completing the document but were unable to agree on such highly divisive issues as women’s rights, the distribution of oil revenue, the role of Islamic law and whether to establish a federal system.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was heavily involved in the negotiations, said Tuesday that he was “personally disappointed” by the delay but praised Iraqi politicians “for the compromises they have already made” and expressed confidence that the extra week would produce an agreement.
Although Talabani and others characterized the final disputes as more technical than substantial, deep rifts remain.
Sunni Arab representatives are strongly opposed to the desire among Kurds and Shiite Muslims to establish semi-independent states around a weak Baghdad government. Shiite negotiators remain determined to secure the same level of autonomy for their southern provinces that the Kurdish-dominated north has enjoyed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
If the disputes can’t be resolved in a week, legislators could again vote to extend the deadline. But doing so could seriously damage the public credibility of the process and jeopardize plans to hold an Oct. 15 national referendum on the constitution. If voters approve the document, new parliamentary elections are to follow in December.
All participants have ruled out the idea of another extension.
Should the disputes remain next Monday, other options include dissolving the government and holding new elections, deferring controversial topics until later or passing a constitution over the objections of some negotiators.
Representatives of the Sunnis in particular would welcome the opportunity for new elections, which could allow them to mobilize a community that largely stayed away from January’s polls and left the group underrepresented in the government.
But Khalilzad said he didn’t think a parliament with more elected Sunnis would produce smoother negotiations.
“I don’t think it would change the issues,” he said. “How would the fundamentals change?”
Shiite legislators, meanwhile, have issued veiled warnings that they could use their parliamentary majority to force through a constitution if Sunnis remain opposed to a federalist system. But that could risk a Sunni campaign to defeat the constitution in the October referendum; the document cannot be adopted if two-thirds majorities in at least three of Iraq’s 18 governorates vote no.
Hussein Shahristani, a deputy parliament speaker and a senior Shiite negotiator, played down that possibility, saying, “We don’t think any three governorates will reject this draft.”
Despite the public brinkmanship on display, Khalilzad said he expected all sides to make further concessions.
“I would not take too seriously the posturing that goes on outside” the negotiation chambers, he said.
The protracted deadlock has frustrated ordinary Iraqis, who have simmered through a third summer of war with unreliable supplies of electricity and water.
“I was so disappointed, and I feel that the people who have power in this country are not trustworthy,” said Omar Ibrahim, a 28-year-old Baghdad computer technician. “This delay does not affect me personally, but it affects Iraqis in general. We have not noticed any changes. Nothing is improving, especially public services.... We are only getting neglect.”
In other developments, more than a dozen Iraqis were injured when a U.S. helicopter reportedly opened fire on a crowd gathered on the roof of a Baghdad hotel before dawn Tuesday.
A spokesman said the U.S. military had no information on the incident, but witnesses claimed the gunship fired without warning.
“Even the people sleeping in hotels or their houses do not feel safe,” said Hadi Yousif, 26. “There is no electricity, people are forced to sleep on the rooftop. Why open fire at them?”
Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the deaths of four U.S. troops. All died Monday.
Three National Guard troops died in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, when their vehicle overturned during combat operations. They were identified as Sgt. Thomas J. Strickland, 27, of Douglasville, Ga.; Spc. Joshua P. Dingler, 19, of Hiram, Ga.; and Sgt. Paul A. Saylor, 21, of Norcross, Ga.
And in the northern city of Mosul, Spc. Jose L. Ruiz, 28, of Brentwood, N.Y., was shot to death while “conducting security operations,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
Times staff writers Zainab Hussein and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.