Political Violence Surges in Iraq

Sadr supporters demonstrate in Najaf after fighting between militias broke out across southern Iraq on Wednesday night and early Thursday.
Sadr supporters demonstrate in Najaf after fighting between militias broke out across southern Iraq on Wednesday night and early Thursday. (By Thaier Sudani -- Reuters)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 26, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 26 -- Political violence surged Thursday along many of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fault lines, while Shiite and Sunni Arab political leaders haggled past a third deadline without reaching accord on a draft constitution.

As the two-day death toll around Iraq reached 100, fighting between two powerful Shiite militias in the southern city of Najaf subsided, with 19 reported dead overall. The clashes Wednesday night and Thursday between the Mahdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, and fighters allegedly linked to the government-allied Badr Organization were the deadliest between Iraqi militia forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

In Baghdad, 13 Iraqi police officers, 27 Iraqi civilians and an unidentified American security force member were killed when dozens of fighters believed to be former members of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus laid siege to a neighborhood late Wednesday, openly walking the district's streets in black masks and carrying AK-47s and grenade launchers, according to the U.S. military, Iraqi officials and witnesses. East of the capital, the bodies of 36 other men, their identities unknown, were found heaped Thursday near a road leading toward Iran, security officials told news agencies.

The bloodshed was spurred partly by differences among Sunni and Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds over the constitution, along with attempts by insurgents and Hussein loyalists to derail the political process. Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, said the Baghdad siege in particular was a "stage-managed operation," orchestrated by supporters of Hussein intent on overshadowing work on the constitution. "They wanted the writing on the wall that they are still there," Kubba said.

While the Bush administration has pushed hard for Iraqis to stick to a timeline for approving the constitution that would show progress toward political change -- and would make U.S. troop withdrawals possible -- one negotiator said American officials Thursday appeared more intent on bringing Sunni Arabs on board than on rushing the process to its conclusion. American and Iraqi leaders have called inclusion of mainstream Sunnis in the political process an essential step toward ending the Sunni-led insurgency.

The speaker of Iraq's National Assembly, Hachim Hasani, said separately that ending the constitutional talks with Sunnis and Shiites still so far apart would only risk greater civil strife later. "It's very dangerous if Iraq cannot come to some kind of consensus on something this important," Hasani said. "Everybody doesn't want Iraq to go divided to the referendum."

Iraq's interim constitution requires a nationwide vote on the draft by Oct. 15. The National Assembly was obligated to finish it by Aug. 15, but negotiators instead engineered a one-week extension. When that deadline passed Monday, faction leaders submitted an incomplete document to the assembly and gave themselves until Thursday to produce a complete version.

Late Thursday, as negotiations continued, political leaders sent out word for assembly members to stay home, canceling the 400 dinners ordered for lawmakers and staff members. Kubba told reporters that negotiators would simply submit a finished draft by the end of the day. "The assembly will then rubber-stamp it," perhaps by Sunday, he said.

Instead, a weary Hasani appeared on state television Friday a few minutes after midnight. There was no deal, Hasani said, and meetings would resume later in the day.

"This constitution deserves to be given time," Hasani said as most of Baghdad slept or tossed on another hot night when municipal electricity was unavailable to power air conditioners. "It deserves giving it another day for everyone to be satisfied.

"We hope tomorrow we can finish this matter. The final day will be when we say this is the constitution draft which everybody agreed on."

Others involved in or close to the negotiations expressed frustration.

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