With less than five weeks before Iraqis are scheduled to vote in a referendum on a new draft constitution, top politicians say the document is still not ready to be presented to the public. Time is running out on plans for the United Nations to print some five million copies of the draft ahead of the poll.
United Nations officials in Baghdad say they had hoped that the Iraqi National Assembly would deliver a final text of the constitution to them on Sunday to allow enough time for printing and distribution.
Five million copies of the draft were supposed to have been printed and presented to the electorate of about 15.5 million people by now. But as of late Monday, it was still unclear when the document would be formally presented.
Even though the National Assembly adopted the draft on August 28, a Sunni Arab member of the constitution drafting committee, Sadoun al-Zubaidi, tells VOA that talks between ethnic and religious leaders to amend portions of the constitution are still on-going.
"The text is still contemptuously viewed by various parties," he said. "Major items on the draft remain subject to discussion, I mean, the parties are still interested in talking about them, even though the text has been presented to the National Assembly.
Mr. Zubaidi, who once served as former dictator Saddam Hussein's personal interpreter, says one of the issues still being discussed is a Sunni demand about inserting the word Arab to describe the identity of Iraq. In the draft constitution, the word Arab was left out, as a concession to non-Arab Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.
Sunni opposition to creating a new, semi-autonomous zone in the mainly-Shi'ite Muslim south, as outlined in the constitution, is also hampering efforts to reach a final agreement. Sunni Muslims fear that having strong regional governments in the Kurdish north and Shi'ite south could deny Sunnis in the middle of the country a fair share of Iraq's vast oil resources. Sunnis argue that such an arrangement would ultimately divide the country and plunge it into a civil war.
And not all Shi'ites favor establishing a semi-autonomous zone in the south. Constitution committee members allied with radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have denounced the idea as a ploy by some powerful Shi'ite government leaders with ties to neighboring Iran to give Iran a more dominant role in Iraqi affairs.
A Shi'ite legislator, Saad Juad Qindeel, says if all the parties fail to agree on the final text by the end of the week, he predicts the draft will have to be printed without any changes.
But such a move could risk the constitution being rejected by Iraq's once powerful Sunni Arab minority on October 15. In some Sunni-dominated provinces in Iraq, voter registration is reportedly soaring, as Sunnis mobilize to try to defeat the constitution.
An overwhelming no-vote by Sunni Arabs would be a blow to the United States, which has been closely overseeing the drafting process. U.S. officials say they are still hopeful that Iraq will have a constitution with a broad appeal, which could significantly undermine Iraq's two-and-a-half-year-old Sunni-led insurgency.