Iraqi tribesmen gather to discuss new constitution
Some members of the multi-religious and ethnic committee drafting Iraq's constitution have begun to express doubts as to whether they can meet the August 15 deadline to submit a constitution to parliament for approval. With five weeks left, issues crucial to the country's future have yet to be debated.

Iraq's 55-member constitution drafting committee achieved a milestone earlier this week, adding 15 unelected Sunni Arabs and one member of the country's small Sabian religious sect as members.

They joined 28 Shi'ite Muslims, 15 Kurds, and other ethnic and religious groups on the committee, made up of legislators elected in January.

But Kurdish committee member, Mahmoud Othman, says while forming a more inclusive body to draft the constitution was the right thing to do, he predicts it will greatly complicate efforts to reach a consensus on a host of thorny issues.

"The role of religion and state; The question of a federal Iraq - what type of federal Iraq and so on; The identity of the country - is it Arabic? Is is Islamic? Is it multinational?; Human rights - for example, there are some people who don't agree with the international declaration of human rights; Women's rights - some people think should be Islam. Some people think they should be free," he explained.

Committee members note that because everyone is seeking a consensus on all of the issues, one major disagreement has the potential to bog down, if not derail, the entire process.

In a worrying sign, a Christian committee member, Yonadin Kanna, says disputes have already surfaced. He says disagreements over the question of federalism for Iraq arose during the committee's session on Wednesday. The gathering was the first attended by Sunni Arabs.

"The new people on the committee are not that much with the federal system and they may stop on that [point]," said Yonadin Kanna. "We have to discuss much more."

Sunni Arabs complain that the Kurds, who already control the northern part of Iraq as an autonomous zone outside the control of the central government in Baghdad, want too much autonomy.

One of the new Sunni members on the committee, Saleh Mutlak, says Sunni Arabs will resist efforts by the Kurds to have a federalist arrangement enshrined in the constitution.

"The Sunnis want a united Iraq," Mr. Mutlak said. "They are not looking for something dividing Iraq."

Mr. Othman says if federalism guarantees are not a part of the constitution, the Kurdish people would reject it in a national referendum, slated for October. That, in turn, would severely delay elections for a permanent government, scheduled in December.

"The people of Kurdistan, when there was election in January, 98 percent voted for an independent Kurdistan, not even federal," he said. "I think the Kurds will only agree to one thing and that is to haven an Iraq, which is federal."

If the constitution drafting committee believes it will miss the August 15 deadline, it could request an extension of up to six months.

But the Bush administration opposes the move because it argues that such a delay could provide opportunities for insurgents and extremists to exploit the ethnic and religious divisions and promote more violence.