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Correction to This Article
An Aug. 15 article describing negotiations on Iraq's constitution incorrectly identified a Fox News journalist who interviewed U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The journalist was Chris Wallace, not Chris Matthews.
On Eve of Deadline, Key Disputes Remain On Iraqi Constitution
Iraqi Factions Divided on Host of Issues

By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 14 -- Several key issues remained unresolved on the eve of a deadline for a draft of Iraq's new constitution, politicians involved in the discussion said Sunday, increasing the prospect that the document will not be completed on time.

Leaders of the country's dominant Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, skipped a late-night meeting with Kurdish officials at the headquarters of Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, rendering the meeting little more than an informal get-together, according to Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the committee charged with writing the constitution.

"By what I saw today, I don't think this can be achieved tomorrow," Othman said Sunday night. Kurds and Shiites, who form the ruling coalition, have been unable to reach an agreement on the role of Islam in determining law, the distribution of the country's oil wealth and other issues.

Kurds and Shiites were hoping to reach a consensus on such issues before meeting with leaders from the Sunni Arab minority, long considered the most likely holdouts in the process, and hammering out a final deal by Monday. But the gathering Sunday revealed that divisions remain between the governing coalition and the Sunnis, between the Shiites and the Kurds, and within the Shiite bloc.

The unexplained absence Sunday night of the Supreme Council leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, came three days after his dramatic call for the formation of a Shiite state in southern and central Iraq, a move widely considered disruptive to the process of forging an agreement. The Shiite-led government, which is under heavy U.S. pressure to meet the Monday deadline, quickly denounced Hakim's plea.

The question of federalism -- the extent and timing of autonomy granted to regional states -- presents the greatest remaining barrier to a final agreement, several politicians said. Kurds and Shiites generally favor broader regional autonomy than do Sunnis, who fear that it would be a step toward the partition of the country. Sunni leaders are pushing an alternative proposal that would defer a decision on federalism until after a new parliament is chosen in December.

With the prospect of consensus fading Sunday, Shiite leaders stressed that even without the Sunnis, the process could go forward.

"To approve a constitution, you only need 50 percent of the national assembly plus one," said Jalaledin Saghir, a Shiite member of the constitutional committee.

Such statements stand in stark contrast to declarations made in the early days of the constitution-writing process, when committee members said they would push for a broad consensus to help unify the country.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have long been concerned that the alienation of the Sunnis could strengthen the country's violent insurgency, which holds sway in Sunni regions.

Underscoring that threat Sunday, police in Awarij, south of Baghdad, unearthed the bodies of at least 30 policemen and government workers, many of whom had been bludgeoned beyond recognition. Three foreign fighters arrested earlier in the day led police to the grave, according to Babil province's police chief, Qais Hamza.

Meanwhile, Kurds and Shiites, whose interests are aligned on many issues, remained divided over the role of Islam in determining Iraqi law. Shiite leaders said they believed they were close to persuading more secular Kurds to accept Islam as "the main source" of the constitution along with a requirement that no laws be passed that contradict sharia , or Islamic law.

That position was strongly opposed Sunday by a few dozen female protesters concerned that deference to Islamic law would leave them vulnerable, particularly in the area of family law, where most interpretations of Islam accord many advantages to men. The protesters packed the convention center in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone Sunday afternoon, waving signs and chanting, "Our rights for our votes."

Reflecting the distance that must be bridged to complete the constitution, the National Assembly session scheduled for Monday morning was pushed back to 6 p.m., by which time constitutional committee leaders hope to submit a draft.

If the constitution is not completed Monday, the National Assembly must be dissolved, according to the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution. But Hussain Shahristani, deputy speaker of the assembly, said the body would consider a vote to amend the transitional law to allow for more time.

U.S. officials have made clear they expect the Monday deadline to be met.

"They have resolved most of the issues that divided them when they started the process. And they've got a couple of issues left, and they are going to meet again late this evening with the expectation that they will achieve success and they will have a draft ready by the end of the day tomorrow," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told Fox News's Chris Matthews.

Several constitution-related demonstrations were staged in the country Sunday. In the north, Kurds in Kirkuk gathered to demand that the oil-rich city be incorporated into the boundaries of greater Kurdistan. In Tikrit, another northern city, Sunni religious and militia leaders encouraged residents to register to vote in the upcoming referendum on the charter.

Elsewhere, U.S. investigators were slating a second phase of tests on chemicals and equipment seized Tuesday at an illicit lab in Mosul, said Col. Henry Franke, a nuclear, biological and chemical defense officer. Franke said U.S. investigators were questioning detainees in connection with the lab.

Also Sunday, U.S. forces released Mustafa Yaqoubi, a Shiite cleric whose arrest last year sparked clashes between the military and the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, according to a spokesman for Sadr.

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company