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Iraq's Constitutional Panel Calls for Emergency Summit

With an August 15 deadline looming for an Iraqi draft constitution, the committee writing the charter has asked leaders of various religious factions and political blocs to hold an emergency summit in Baghdad. The drafting committee is under pressure from the United States not to miss its deadline.

Iraqi sources say the chairman of the constitution writing committee, Houmam al-Hammoudi, requested the emergency meeting as a way for Iraqi leaders outside the committee to hash out their differences face-to-face.

The invitation has been extended to all Iraqi groups and political parties, but committee members are said to be particularly eager to have as many Sunni Arab leaders as possible involved in the talks.

It is hoped the meeting can smooth out disagreements on several key issues, which have kept the constitution's multi-ethnic and religious committee deadlocked for weeks. The most divisive issue has been the question of how to define federalism as the structure for governing the country.

Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims have been pushing for a provision to create an autonomous Shi'ite federal region in the south, similar to the 14 year-long arrangement enjoyed by the Kurds in the north.

On Tuesday, Sunni Arabs, who lost power after the fall of Saddam Hussein and have formed the core of Iraq's deadly insurgency, said that while they could respect Kurdish autonomy, they would never agree to the creation of a Shi'ite federal region.

The Sunnis argue that such a move would break apart the country. Shi'ite committee members, who dominate the panel, say they may include the provision in the constitution despite Sunni objections.

While federalism for the Kurds is relatively assured, Sunnis reject Kurdish moves to stretch their territory to an area south of Baghdad, well beyond the boundaries of the current Kurdish autonomous region.

Kurdish leaders insist if the redrawn map is not recognized in the constitution, Kurdish voters would reject the draft in a national referendum scheduled for October 15.

The rigid stance of the various groups on federalism and other issues has alarmed the United States, which fears Iraq could descend into civil war and break apart.

The constitution is seen as a key step toward creating an inclusive, broad-based permanent Iraqi government, which can drain Sunni support for the insurgency and allow U.S. and other foreign troops to go home.

Earlier this week, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, urged all sides to compromise for the sake of peace.

"If you look across the cases of successful constitutions, a key commonality was enlightened leadership, leaders who took the long view and understood that compromise that delivers the benefits of stable and effective governance is more valuable than seeking a maximum outcome at the expense of political unity," he said. "The lesson is that, if good faith efforts are made, with a spirit of realism, flexibility and compromise, even fundamental divides can be bridged."

If the committee feels it will miss the August 15 deadline, the members could ask for a six-month extension. But the United States opposes such a move for fear Sunni Muslim extremists and insurgents could use the delay to raise more sectarian tension and sow chaos.