- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

BAGHDAD — A Shi’ite leader yesterday threw his support behind a federal system of government that would create a Shi’ite south and a Kurdish north, but Sunni Arabs warned the move could postpone completion of a new constitution with a deadline only four days away.

Also yesterday, the military said a U.S. Marine assigned to the 2nd Marine Division was killed in a roadside bombing the night before in the western city of Ramadi.

President Bush, meanwhile, said in Texas that it would be a mistake to bring U.S. troops home now because it “would send a terrible signal to the enemy.”

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi’ite Muslim who heads Iraq’s biggest political party, said the constitution should endorse regional governments to “keep political balance in country,” apparently a gesture toward Kurdish demands to have the government take on a federal shape.

Sunni Arab leaders fear the stance could split their territories from oil-rich areas that are heavily populated by Kurds and Shi’ites.

“We were surprised with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim’s declarations today,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the committee that is drafting the constitution. “Time is running out, and such declarations should be much more calm. We don’t have time for such maneuvers.”

Parliament is supposed to approve the new constitution by Monday and put it before voters in an Oct. 15 referendum.

Mr. al-Hakim urged leaders not to miss their opportunity to write a unifying document for the fractured country.

“We should not let this chance of accomplishing this goal to go away,” he said in a speech in the holy city of Najaf marking the death of his brother, a prominent Shi’ite cleric who was assassinated in 2002. “It is a sacred aim, and there should be constitutional guarantees to accomplish that.”

Mr. al-Hakim spoke one day after meeting with Iraq’s most important Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Ayatollah al-Sistani, who wields enormous influence in the country’s Shi’ite majority, also met separately with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A major obstacle to agreement has been the Kurds’ demand that Iraq be transformed into a federal state as a way to protect their self-rule in three northern provinces. Sunni Arabs oppose that, fearing Kurds want to declare independence. Shi’ites are divided, with factions that support federalism wanting to build a Shi’ite region in the south.

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