Iraqi lawmakers failed to meet their self-imposed deadline Thursday night to approve a draft constitution, deferring a decision yet again as negotiations to win approval from Sunni Arab representatives remained deadlocked.
The delay increased the possibility that Shiite and Kurdish leaders may abandon efforts to reach a consensus and simply send the draft to a nationwide referendum without a vote in the transitional National Assembly.
“We needed one more day to reach a result that will, God willing, please everyone,” assembly Speaker Hachim Hassani said at the Baghdad Convention Center shortly after midnight. “We do not draft a constitution every now and then, nor even every year, but rather, this constitution might be drafted every hundred years. Therefore, the issue really deserves for us to dedicate the time it requires.”
The talks, held at the residence of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in the heavily fortified Green Zone, broke down about 10 p.m. Thursday, several participants said. Sunni Arab panelists had been waiting for the majority Shiite parliamentary bloc to present a counterproposal on the issue of federalism but walked out when the top Shiite leaders didn’t show.
“What negotiations? There were no negotiations,” said Iyad Samarrai, a senior Sunni member of the constitutional panel.
The postponement Thursday was the third time that Iraqi leaders delayed a decision on the draft charter, which had been due Aug. 15.
After a hastily approved one-week extension, a draft backed by the Shiites and Kurds was submitted to the National Assembly on Monday. A vote was delayed by three days in order to bring Sunni Arab negotiators on board.
The new delay is the latest sign that differences between the Sunni Arabs, a minority that was dominant in Iraq’s former regime, and the Shiite-Kurdish coalition might be irreconcilable. A national referendum on the constitution is scheduled for Oct. 15.
Even with majority approval, the draft can fail if at least two-thirds of the electorate in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it. Sunni Arabs are the majority in two provinces and make up a significant portion of the population in two others.
Participants in the constitutional talks say the main sticking point is Sunni refusal to accept a proposal for a semi-independent region in the Shiite-dominated, oil-rich south. Sunni representatives have resisted the Shiite push for federalism, fearing it would lead to a southern superstate independent of Baghdad.
Panelists have made counteroffers, with the Sunnis asking that the issue of federalism be decided by the National Assembly or in the upcoming referendum. They also want to remove language condemning the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni Arab-dominated government oppressed Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish communities.
Both issues, participants say, are deal breakers for the Shiites.
Ali Dabagh, a Shiite member of the constitutional committee, said retaining language stating that the Baath Party “under any name ... will not be allowed to be part of the multilateral political system in Iraq” was a core Shiite demand.
He predicted that it would be impossible to please all sides. “Compromise does not mean unanimity,” Dabagh said.
Kurds, meanwhile, having struck a deal with the Shiites on issues such as the distribution of oil revenue, have been playing the role of observer and broker to what has become largely a Sunni-Shiite dispute.
The Kurds have held de facto autonomy over provinces in northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “They don’t have a dog in this fight,” said an advisor close to the negotiations. “They’re happy with the agreement as is.”
U.S. officials have lobbied for a draft constitution acceptable to Sunnis, who are underrepresented in the transitional government, in part because they boycotted the assembly elections in January. The latest delays, participants say, are largely the result of U.S. pressure on Shiites and Kurds to win over the Sunnis.
Coaxing wary Sunnis, whose discontent is said to be fueling the insurgency, into the political process is a cornerstone of the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq.
The Bush administration fears that a Shiite-Kurd power play would further alienate the already marginalized Sunni Arab population, driving more Sunnis toward the insurgency and delaying the withdrawal of the more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that “the discussions continue [among Iraqi leaders]. People are working on finalizing texts. People are working to resolve outstanding political issues.”
With the Shiites and Kurds looking increasingly likely to proceed without a consensus, Sunni representatives are openly lobbying to dissolve the government and hold new elections.
“This draft is born dead,” said Kamal Hamdoun, a Sunni member of the committee, claiming that the National Assembly, which has not met since Aug. 15, invalidated itself by accepting an incomplete draft constitution Monday.
The allegation has at least some basis, international observers said. At the very least, the maneuver violated the spirit of the interim constitution, known as the Transitional Administrative Law, or TAL, that American officials and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council drafted after the 2003 invasion.
But in the nascent Iraqi system, it is unclear who would determine whether the transitional law has been violated and decide the government should be dissolved. And such an outcome would not benefit the Shiites, Kurds or the U.S., but prove a serious admission of failure for all three.
Hamdoun, who is head of the Iraqi Lawyers Syndicate, compared the actions of the assembly with those of pagan idol worshipers in what is now Saudi Arabia before the rise of Islam. The pagans built idols out of dates, but then ate them in times of hardship.
“They consider the TAL sacred,” he said. “Now, like the pre-Islamic Arabs, they are eating their idols.”
Sunni negotiator Saadoun Zubaidi, formerly Saddam Hussein’s translator, put it less poetically.
“We believe the National Assembly has no basis to continue existing,” he said.
Times staff writers Suhail Ahmed, Raheem Salman and Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.