IRAQI GOVERNMENT Officials extend deadline for work on constitution
Some politicians called for the government to be dissolved.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi legislators voted Monday for a one-week delay in presenting a draft of a new constitution after negotiators were unable to resolve bitter disputes by a midnight deadline.
Twenty minutes before the clock ran out, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's transitional laws to make Aug. 22 the new deadline for a draft. Shiite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers, weary from weeks of rancorous talks, mustered the three-quarters majority necessary for the vote.
Several negotiators interviewed after the meeting blamed the unraveling of talks on Kurdish demands for a larger share of Iraq's oil revenues and a clause that would allow Kurds to vote on seceding from Iraq in eight years.
Iraqi leaders, who had worked under intense U.S. pressure to deliver a draft on time, called the delay an assertion of the Iraqi government's independence and its commitment to writing a constitution that satisfies both Arab and Kurdish demands.
"This proves to the world that Iraqis are writing their own constitution," said Hajim al-Hassani, the speaker of parliament. "We want to be sure to write something that keeps Iraq intact, in land and in people."
While the move averted a political crisis -- by law, the elected government would have had to dissolve if the drafting committee missed its deadline -- it also opened a new round of fierce debate on controversial issues such as the powers of the central government, the degree of Kurdish autonomy and the role of Islam in legislation.
Several politicians called for the dissolution of the government, preferring to start anew with elections that would force candidates to campaign on constitutional issues instead of raw sectarianism.
"This is an absolute failure," said Mohammed al-Dainy, a Sunni politician. "Even if they postpone it for a month or many months, it won't be enough. I am optimistic the government will be dissolved. They're a burden on the people."
The amendment is a setback to the Bush administration's contention that a successful, on-time constitution would keep Iraq's political progress on track and quell the insurgency, two key factors in deciding when the United States can begin withdrawing its 138,000 troops from Iraq.
Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, who smiled and shook hands with Iraqi lawmakers, sat in the front row of the meeting hall as the 275-member legislature approved the resolution by a show of hands. While President Jalal Talabani praised the American envoy for his help in negotiations, other politicians privately said Khalilzad had expressed disappointment that they weren't able to finish on schedule.
"I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days," Khalilzad said in a statement.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also tried to put the best face on the stalled constitution. "We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq," she said at the State Department.
The failure to reach an agreement on time, however, exposed the deep-seated ethnic and sectarian tensions that have plagued the drafting process from the beginning. Negotiators passed the weekend in marathon meetings that yielded little progress on the 18 most disputed topics. Talks initially were held up by Shiites' demands for a greater role for Islam and for a huge semiautonomous southern state similar to the northern Kurdish region. Sunni Arabs' opposition to federalism, which they think will isolate them in resource-deprived central and western regions and fragment Iraq, was another snag.
However, several politicians who were privy to the negotiations said the Kurdish demands for 65 percent of their region's oil wealth and the rights to petroleum exploration were the biggest obstacle to presenting a draft Monday.