Groups on both sides of Iraq's most contentious sectarian divide hardened their stances Wednesday, as Sunni Muslim politicians demanded 25 more seats on the committee that will write the country's permanent constitution, while Iraq's president and prime minister offered glowing praise for a controversial Shiite Muslim militia.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported that four of its soldiers had been killed in northern Iraq on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Members of the constitution committee have been struggling for weeks to reach agreement on incorporating more Sunni Arabs. Because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the country's legislative elections in January, they are underrepresented in parliament and have just two seats on the 55-member committee, which next meets on Thursday.
A group of prominent Sunni Arabs issued their demands for greater representation on the panel after meeting Wednesday afternoon. The alliance of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, led by Shiites, has 28 committee seats and Kurds have 15, with the remainder divided among other political groups or individuals.
"We have to get more than just Shiites on the committee," said Adnan Dulaimi, who heads the government department that oversees Sunni affairs. "We demand 25 seats in the committee so the number would be equal to what the Sunni Arabs represent in Iraq."
According to many estimates, Sunni Arabs represent 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population, but they often claim to make up a larger proportion. Iraq's majority Shiites control the transitional government.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said that including more Sunnis in the political process could weaken support for the Sunni-dominated insurgency. But the Sunni request for 25 seats on an expanded constitutional committee -- nearly twice as many as Sunnis had previously been offered -- threatens to further delay efforts to finalize the panel, which is charged with completing a draft by Aug. 15.
If the panel completes its work on schedule, a national referendum on the constitution will be held Oct. 15. Members can request a six-month extension, a prospect that U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they hope to avoid. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, released a report Wednesday arguing that the committee should take the extension to ensure the quality of its product.
"The Kurds expressed their opinion. They would not accept the number of the Sunnis being more than theirs," said Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite member of the committee.
Dabbagh and other members said the final number of Sunnis added was not important because the panel was expected to vote to make all decisions by consensus.
But Dulaimi said the Sunnis' demand was firm. "If they don't agree at the end, we'll withdraw from the process of writing the constitution. We will never accept the 13 seats they want to give us," he said. "In the referendum, if they don't agree to our demands, we'll call on three provinces to reject the constitution."
However, Naseer Ani, a Sunni politician involved in negotiations, said there might be room for compromise. "We insist on the number, but it is politics -- everything is possible," he said.
Sunnis could present as many as 40 candidates to the committee for consideration Thursday.
The Sunni bloc also called Wednesday for the constitution to include a clause affirming Iraq's place among the community of Arab nations, which many Kurds find objectionable. Kurds are largely Sunni Muslims but are not Arabs.
Among other issues expected to provoke debate are the role of Islam in determining Iraqi law, the extent of autonomy for regional governments and the legality of nongovernmental militias, such as the Kurdish pesh merga and the Shiite Badr organization.
Badr, once known as the Badr Brigades, opened its second annual convention in Baghdad Wednesday. Though it has attempted to recast itself as a political organization, because militias are banned under Iraq's interim constitution, it has been accused by Sunnis of participating in executions and raids targeting Sunni clerics and political leaders.
Government officials and Badr's leaders have denied any role by the militia in the attacks, which have heightened sectarian tension and threatened to disrupt the fragile efforts to foster political cooperation between the government and Sunni leaders.
Badr maintains a visible presence in Baghdad's streets, with members wearing uniforms and toting weapons, but U.S. officials in Iraq have said they have found little evidence to indicate their complicity in the crimes.
"There is a big effort by evil forces to pollute the reputation of the patriotic forces, like Badr organization," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a prominent Shiite political party with which Badr is affiliated.
"It is a patriotic group that works for Iraq's interest and it will not be dragged into sectarian or any other kind of struggle," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in a speech to the militia's conference. "You and [the pesh merga] are the heroes of Iraq liberation, and you are the strong hands of your Iraqi people."
Jafari, who also addressed the convention, told the audience, "We are looking forward to Badr being a shield to protect the country, as they were a sword against the idol's face," a reference to the militia's long-standing opposition to ousted president Saddam Hussein.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, a car bombing in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, killed three Iraqis in a line of vehicles waiting for gasoline, police said.
The U.S. military said roadside bombings killed two soldiers, one on patrol near the northern town of Dawr at about noon Wednesday and another Tuesday night on patrol in Balad. In Tikrit, two soldiers with the Army's 42nd Infantry Division were killed by gunfire Tuesday.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.