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Iraqi Politicians Wrangle Over Constitution as Deadline Looms


With only hours to go before Iraq's constitution deadline, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish negotiators continue to differ over major issues including federalism, the sharing of oil revenues and the political role of the Shi'ite clergy.

The negotiators have until midnight (2000 UTC) to agree on a draft constitution, and present it to parliament for approval.

But as discussion continued Monday, the three main factions looked hardly closer to agreement than they were when the first deadline passed a week ago.

Laith Kubba, a spokesman for the Shiite-led transitional government, said that a failure to complete the draft on time would leave two options: amend the interim constitution again to allow for another deadline extension, or dissolve parliament.

The Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs could push a draft through parliament without the Sunni Arabs, whose numbers were boosted on the drafting committee to make up for their severe under-representation in parliament.

Sunni Arab committee members on Sunday appealed to the United States and United Nations to prevent the Shi'ites and Kurds from presenting a draft without them. Sunni negotiator Salih Mutlaq said he feared a "surprise" in parliament Monday night. He said this would only boost support for the insurgency, and worsen the violence in Iraq.

The Sunnis, the politically dominant group in the former regime of Saddam Hussein, are trying to preserve a centralized state in the face of demands by Shi'ite parties for local powers in the oil-rich south.

The Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq's U.S.-drafted interim constitution, is designed to prevent any segment of society from being excluded.

The Sunni minority could still block a draft in the planned October 15 national referendum, in which two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces hold the power to reject a document they don't like. However, parliament has already amended that law to allow the constitutional negotiations to continue, after constitutional negotiators failed to meet the original August 15 deadline.

Monday night, parliament could again vote for an extension.

The Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs might be able to sideline the Sunni Arabs, but they have not been able to agree among themselves either. While the Kurds mainly want to secure their autonomy in northern Iraq, they say they are wary of attempts by some Shi'ite parties to impose Islamic law on the whole country. Shi'ite parties are pushing for special status for the Shi'ite clerical leadership in the holy city of Najaf as arbitrators of Islamic law.

Differences also remain over women's rights.

Some negotiators expressed frustration with the influence of neighboring Iran on prominent Shi'ite politicians, apparently preventing them from making even slight concessions that would allow all sides to reach agreement.

Shi'ite negotiators, for their part, say the Kurds were conspiring with the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to bring down the current government and force new elections, without achieving a constitution first.

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