- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — The speaker of Iraq’s parliament announced a one-day extension early today in talks on Iraq’s new constitution — the third extension in a bid to win Sunni Arab approval. But he said that if no agreement is reached, the document would bypass parliament and be decided in an Oct. 15 referendum.

Hajim al-Hassani, speaking minutes after the midnight deadline, said that after meeting for three days, “we found that time was late and we saw that the matters will need another day in order to reach results that please everyone.”

Earlier, however, a Sunni Arab negotiator said Shi’ites didn’t even show up for a late-night meeting.

The perception that the Shi’ites and Kurds rammed through a document unacceptable to the Sunnis could produce a backlash among Sunni Arabs and sharpen religious and ethnic tensions.

Although the constitution requires only a simple majority in the referendum, if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it, the charter will be defeated. Sunni Arabs are about 20 percent of the national population but form the majority in at least four provinces.

The deadlock on the constitution occurred as Shi’ite leaders called for an end to fighting between rival Shi’ite groups, and police found the bodies of 36 men, bound and shot in the head, near the Iranian border — apparent victims of Iraq’s worsening communal tension.

Shi’ites and Kurds had accepted a draft of the constitution on Monday but Sunni Arabs opposed it, and Mr. al-Hassani had granted three more days to try to bring the Sunnis on board.

Monday was the second deadline that the legislature granted after the drafting committee failed to meet the Aug. 15 date set in the interim constitution.

The parliament speaker said that discussions in the past three days were “very good in which points of views were exchanged.” He said they discussed federalism, references to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and the constitution’s introduction.

Mr. al-Hassani said discussions continued yesterday and were attended by the Kurdish coalition, Iraqi List party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Sunni Arabs.

Senior Shi’ite negotiator Ali Dabbagh said the Shi’ite alliance in parliament wants the people to decide on the constitution in the referendum and resist any further changes to the draft.

Some Shi’ites maintained there was no need for a parliamentary vote because the constitutional drafting committee had met its legal obligation by handing in a draft on Monday.

Mr. al-Hassani, a Sunni who was elected on the mostly Sunni ticket headed by former President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, agreed.

“We legally received the draft. We are optimistic, although there are some differences. But if we will not be able to reach agreements in the end, this constitution is going to be presented for the Iraqis in an Oct. 15 referendum.

“Legally we do not need the parliament to vote on the draft, but we need only a consensus so that all the Iraqis will say yes to the constitution,” he said. “I still believe that the door is wide enough for reaching agreements.”

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