By Jonathan Finer and Khalid Saffar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- After granting themselves an extra week to complete a draft constitution, Iraqi leaders Tuesday joined U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in painting the missed deadline as an opportunity, not a failure.
Khalilzad acknowledged he was "personally disappointed" that Monday's deadline had not been met but said he was confident an agreement could be reached by Aug. 22. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari said political groups still had "some differences in views on details, but not on the main principles or major issues."
But despite the positive public front, many participants in the negotiations said deep fissures remained among Iraq's main factions on topics as fundamental to the charter as the level of autonomy to be granted to regional governments and the role of Islam in determining law.
After voting for an extension Monday just before midnight, some informal discussions resumed Tuesday among leaders of the country's largest political blocs; broader negotiations were slated to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Some politicians questioned whether seven extra days would be enough time to reach an agreement. Others suggested that a lack of desire to compromise might be a larger barrier to a deal among parties that have seemed to harden their stances in recent days.
"The main question is not the length of the extension period, but rather whether there is political will, resolve and flexibility to make hard decisions," said Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite Muslim member of the 71-member constitution-writing committee. "In the absence of good intentions, a week or longer would not be enough."
Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that three soldiers died Monday in a vehicle accident in Baghdad. And Jafari said in a news conference that he had signed papers authorizing the execution of the first three men sentenced to death in Iraq since capital punishment was restored last year. The three insurgents were convicted in May by a criminal court in Kut, southeast of Baghdad, of kidnapping and killing policemen and raping Iraqi women. The sentences will be carried out soon, Jafari said.
On Wednesday, two suicide car bombs exploded at a bus station in central Baghdad, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 21, police said. A third car bomb exploded near a hospital where victims were taken for treatment, causing additional casualties, the Associated Press reported.
Khalilzad, who has played an increasingly active role in constitutional deliberations, said in an afternoon news conference that he would continue to make himself available "if my help is needed."
The ambassador listed several key issues on which he said all parties largely agreed. Among them were the role of Islam and the concept of federalism, two points that interviews with Iraqi politicians suggested were still far from settled.
In response to the apparent discrepancy between the optimism expressed by U.S. and Iraqi officials and the differences that some politicians insist remain, Khalilzad cautioned reporters not to "take seriously the posturing that goes on outside" negotiations.
He said, for example, that the Kurdish regional parliament's controversial stated demand for the right of self-determination -- widely considered a proxy for an eventual push for independence -- had not been mentioned in meetings he attended and was "not on the table at the present time." Many news reports have suggested that the Kurds' demand had emerged as a main sticking point.
Some Shiites, who hold a majority in the country and its legislature, have said in recent days that they were prepared to push through a constitution over the objections of other blocs, particularly Sunni Muslim Arabs. But Khalilzad said that "an agreement that will exclude a major community, that is not in the cards."
Outside the fortified walls of Baghdad's Green Zone, where most negotiations on the constitution have taken place, Iraqis expressed a wide range of thoughts about how the process would unfold, though some seemed skeptical about the prospect of a deal that could satisfy everyone.
"We do not trust each other after these years of hurting each other, so how will we be able to work together?" said Mahmood Samarai, 42, who works at an exchange company. "This is why it takes a long time to finish the constitution. "
Staff writer Josh White in Paraguay and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.