High-ranking European officials encouraged Iraqi leaders Thursday to forge a new, inclusive constitution within existing deadlines, while politicians involved in framing the document said they were making little headway in bringing more Sunni Arabs into the process.
A four-member European delegation, which included British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said at a news conference that its discussions with top members of Iraq's transitional government covered topics that included foreign aid and preparations for an international conference on Iraq on June 22 in Brussels.
The visitors also echoed statements by other foreign dignitaries -- particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Iraq last month -- stressing the importance of finishing a draft constitution by Aug. 15. That deadline is contained in Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law, commonly called the interim constitution. The draft would then be put to a nationwide referendum on Oct. 15.
"I have every confidence that you'll be able to meet these deadlines," said Straw, whose country assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union next month. Luxemboug's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, whose country currently holds the E.U. presidency, said the Brussels conference would focus closely on Iraq's constitution-writing process, as well as reconstruction and security. Officials have said they expect 85 governments and other organizations to attend.
Javier Solana, the E.U.'s foreign policy chief, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the E.U. commissioner for external affairs, were the other two members of the European delegation here.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari of Iraq, whose Shiite Muslim-led government was installed at the end of April, said he, too, was eager to see work on the constitution completed within the allotted time. Jafari asserted that by holding national elections on schedule on Jan. 30, Iraqis demonstrated that they could meet subsequent deadlines in their country's political transformation.
"Legally, there is a possibility of postponing this date," Jafari said, alluding to the interim constitution's provision for a six-month delay in the process. "But we are keen that the constitution will be as scheduled."
The 55-member committee formed to draft the constitution met again Thursday, but members said efforts to expand the role of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority in the drafting process made little progress.
The committee, which is made up of National Assembly members elected in January but was formed only last month, includes just two Sunni Arabs, reflecting the group's small numbers in the assembly. Sunni Arabs overwhelmingly boycotted the January vote, in which Shiites won a majority of seats. Sunni leaders say their role in writing the constitution should be commensurate with the size of Iraq's Sunni Arab population, but that figure is in dispute.
Committee members said after Thursday's closed-door meeting that general agreement had been reached on a way to include more people in the drafting process without violating the interim constitution. A new, larger panel would be formed that would include the 55 members of the existing committee, additional Sunni Arabs and possibly others. The expanded body would write the constitution, then present its draft to the original committee for what members said would effectively be rubber-stamp approval.
But how many members the larger body would have, and who they would be, remained undecided after Thursday's session.
"We are left with the number," said Naseer Ani, who heads the political office of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group. "We will continue negotiating this issue. I don't think it will take more than 10 days."
"We talked for hours and achieved nothing," said Salih Mutlak of the National Dialogue Council, another Sunni group. "They were supposed to reply to us on how many seats they want to give us. They didn't offer any new suggestions. They only listened to our demands."
Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite member of the constitution committee, said the problem appeared to stem from divisions among Sunni Arab organizations. "It seems that the Sunnis have many political leaderships, and that's why there are disagreements among themselves," Dabbagh said. He added, "This is a real problem we face now."