- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi leaders failed to meet a key deadline yesterday to finish a new constitution, stalling over the same fundamental issues of power-sharing — including federalism, oil and women’s rights under Islam — that have bedeviled their country since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein.

Just 20 minutes before midnight, parliament voted to give negotiators until Monday to draft the charter. The delay defies the Bush administration, which had insisted that the deadline be met to maintain political momentum and blunt Iraq’s deadly insurgency.

“We should not be hasty regarding the issues, and the constitution should not be born crippled,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite, after a parliament session that lasted 15 minutes.

Shi’ite political leaders said the unresolved issues were women’s rights and the right of the ethnic-Kurdish minority to eventually secede from Iraq. But Mr. al-Jaafari said the key stumbling blocks were distribution of oil wealth and federalism — a broader way of stating the issue of Kurdish autonomy.

The confusion over outstanding issues — as well as the seeming inability of negotiators to agree even on what they disagreed on — left unclear whether they will reopen talks on all issues or focus on a few.

In Washington, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed confidence that the Iraqis would reach a consensus.

Mr. Bush said Iraqi leaders have “made substantial progress” toward the draft constitution.

“I applaud the heroic efforts of [the] negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue,” he said.

Miss Rice said, “I think we have to step back a little bit here and recognize that, yes, there was an August 15 deadline to complete the constitution. There was also a way for them to avail themselves of a few more days.”

Nevertheless, the last-minute decision to postpone the deadline raised questions about the ability of Iraq’s factions to make the necessary political compromises.

Television cameras were at the ready as parliament convened late yesterday to consider the final undecided issues and debate the charter. In a sign of Washington’s close involvement, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was in the hall as lawmakers gathered. He wore a broad grin, apparently anticipating a vote on the charter.

Even if the negotiators produce a constitution in the next week, the big differences over issues such as federalism, oil revenues and Islam’s role are unlikely to dissipate. The majority Shi’ites also have a stake in federalism, hoping to create an autonomous region in the south as Kurds have in the north — both areas rich in oil. Minority Sunni Arabs oppose federalism, while showing some willingness to compromise.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the constitutional committee, told state-run Al Iraqiya television: “We still have our reservations regarding federalism, but that was not the only reason for the postponement, because there were big points of disagreements, not between us and others, but between the others themselves.”

Sunnis are thought to be the biggest supporters of the insurgency racking the country, causing Washington to push hard for their demands to be addressed to lure them to end the fighting.

The impasse left open the possibility that Iraq — a patchwork of Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis put together as a nation by the British after World War I — could still tumble into a civil war.

It also blunted Iraq’s rapid postwar progress toward democracy, from the Jan. 30 vote that installed the nation’s first elected government since Saddam’s ouster to the efforts to share power among the Shi’ites, the strong Kurdish group and the smaller, disgruntled Sunni community.

If agreement on a constitution is reached, however, Iraqis will vote in mid-October to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country’s first new government under the new constitution.

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