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Sandstorm Halts Second Meeting to Break Deadlock on Iraqi Constitution

A sandstorm blanketing the Iraqi capital has forced Iraqi leaders to postpone a second day of meetings to discuss the draft constitution. The first day of talks on Sunday produced no breakthroughs.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's office announced the postponement Monday afternoon, as a thick, choking blanket of dust settled over Baghdad.

For a second day, bad weather prevented Kurdish leader Massud Barzani from flying to Baghdad from his base in the northern Kurdish region to participate in the constitutional debate.

The first round of discussions began late Sunday at President Talabani's Baghdad home. Participants included Mr. Talabani, former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Sunni Vice President Ghazi al-Yawar, conservative Shi'ite leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and current Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi.

The leaders met for two-and-a-half hours, producing what one Sunni participant called a "working program" for a second meeting, but no breakthroughs on outstanding issues.

On Sunday, Sunni Muslims repeated their preference for establishing a strong central government in Baghdad and their opposition to Kurdish demands for transforming Iraq into a federal state. The Sunnis say such a move would lead to the breakup of the country.

But a Kurdish member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Nasrulla al-Surchi, tells VOA that the Kurds are determined to keep their region autonomous, with its own language, budget, militia and demarcated borders.

Mr. Surchi says, for the Kurdish people, there can be no compromise on the issue of federalism.

The secular Kurds also reject Shi'ite moves to declare Islam as the main source of legislation in Iraq.

With just seven days left before the deadline to submit a draft constitution to the Iraqi National Assembly, the leaders are under intense pressure from the United States to reach a consensus.

U.S. officials are hoping that a new constitution, which encompasses the aspirations of all Iraqis, will lure the country's disenfranchised Sunni Muslims away from the country's insurgency and toward a long-term political process.

If the political process remains on track toward general elections in December and the insurgency does not deepen, the United States says it can then begin withdrawing some of its 139,000 troops from Iraq early next year.