-- Iraq's parliament received a draft constitution late Monday, minutes before a midnight deadline, but the parliamentary speaker gave negotiators three more days to work out key differences before putting the charter to a vote.
The move by Hajim M. Hasani, speaker of the National Assembly, effectively gave drafters of the new constitution a second extension of the deadline for coming up with a document acceptable to the country's main ethnic and religious groups. After months of intensive debate, the original Aug. 15 deadline was postponed for a week, as negotiators sought to reach agreement on such issues as federalism, the role of Islamic law and the sharing of the country's oil wealth.
"All these groups in the coming three days will try, God willing, to reach accord on some points that are still disagreements," Hasani said. "The draft constitution has been received, and we will work on solving the remaining problems. . . ." Hasani then adjourned the long-awaited parliamentary session without a vote on the draft.
In a news conference afterward, he said the main unresolved issues included the federal structure of the new state, the "de-Baathification" process meant to eliminate vestiges of former president Saddam Hussein's dominant Baath Party, and the distribution of power among the president, the National Assembly and the cabinet.
The three-day delay was aimed at obtaining agreement from Sunni Muslim Arabs, who have objected strongly to a loose federal structure that would give great autonomy to Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. This has raised fears among Sunnis that they would be cut off from Iraq's oil riches and that the structure would lead to the disintegration of Iraq.
If the draft passes as is, "the streets will rise up," warned Sunni legislator Salih Mutlak. Shiites and Kurds command a strong majority in the National Assembly and can easily pass the draft constitution without the Sunnis.
Despite the outraged reactions from Sunnis, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, spoke approvingly of the draft constitution. But he said the delay was needed to ensure that everything possible was done to drive a wedge between the Sunni minority and Iraq's insurgency. Most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs.
"I applaud them for taking three more days to try to get as much support from the Sunnis as possible," Khalilzad told CNN. He played down concerns about the draft constitution's declaration that Iraq is an Islamic state and that no laws can go against Islamic tenets. He said the draft also says that no law can be against the principles of democracy and the charter's bill of rights, which includes freedom of religion and forbids discrimination against women and minorities.
"It is a very enlightened constitution," Khalilzad said. "It tries to reconcile Iraqi traditions with universal values. . . . Americans will be very pleased when this document is released. . . ."
Earlier, negotiators said that as formulated essentially by Shiites and Kurds, the draft constitution would fundamentally change Iraq, transforming the country into a loose federation, with a weak central administration governed by Islamic law.
They described the draft as a sweeping rejection of the demands of Iraq's disaffected Sunni minority, which has called the proposed federal system the start of the breakup of Iraq. Shiites and Kurds indicated they were in no mood to compromise.
"We gave a choice -- whoever doesn't want federalism can opt not to practice it," said Shiite constitutional committee member Ali Debagh. Debagh acknowledged the Sunni minority would be unlikely to accept such a draft in a national vote scheduled for October, saying, "We depended upon democracy in writing the constitution and will depend upon it in the referendum."
Sunnis, who had complained of being shut out of talks in recent days, said before the deadline that they still were negotiating. "I don't think there will be a constitution tonight," said Mutlak, the most vocal Sunni moderator.
Another Sunni delegate, Sadoun Zubaidi, angrily asked, "What about the principle of consensus? The principle of consensus is a fundamental, basic to the whole process. If you abandon the principle of consensus, you abandon the basis on which you're forming the constitution. We insist on being part of the process."
President Bush, speaking Monday afternoon in Utah to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, praised the Iraqi negotiators, making no mention of the specific issues or the deadline.
"Iraq's leaders are once again defying the terrorists and pessimists by completing work on a democratic constitution," Bush said. "All of Iraq's main ethic and religious groups are working together on this vital project. . . . And together they will produce a constitution that reflects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people."
Khalilzad kept up days of pressure on negotiators to complete the constitution, giving his sanction to the provisions on Islamic law, negotiators said.
Washington has been pushing hard to stick to a timeline on government-building that would allow for a significant troop withdrawal as soon as early next spring.
Key provisions of the draft would formalize an already autonomous Kurdish state in the north, under a federal system. The rest of the country also would be allowed to form federal systems -- opening the way for the demand by the dominant Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to create a southern Shiite sub-state out of up to half of Iraq's 18 regions.
Sunnis and others say such a state would be under heavy influence from neighboring, Shiite-ruled Iran.
The draft also stipulates that Iraq is an Islamic state and that no law can contradict the principles of Islam, Shiite and Kurdish negotiators said. Opponents have charged that last provision would subject Iraqis to religious edicts by individual clerics.
The Shiite and Kurdish negotiators also said draft calls for the presence of Islamic clerics on the court that would interpret the constitution. Family matters such as divorce, marriage or inheritance would be decided either by religious law or civil law as an individual chooses -- a condition that opponents say would likely lead to women being forced into unfavorable rulings for them by opponents demanding judgments under Islamic law.
It remained uncertain Monday how the National Assembly would treat such a draft. Those opposed to the constitution would have to muster "no" votes by at least two-thirds of the eligible voters in three provinces to defeat it.
Branigin reported from Washington.