The writers of Iraq's new constitution committed themselves Monday to completion of a draft charter by Aug. 15, sticking to a tight timeline that sets new elections in December and could allow significant U.S. troop withdrawals as soon as early spring.
Iraqi and U.S. forces already are preparing for some of the first concrete moves toward an American drawdown. A top-level U.S.-Iraqi task force is due to meet this month to start defining the conditions that must be met for the United States to begin bringing home its 138,000 troops stationed here, U.S. military spokesmen said. And Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, separately identified cities in the more stable south and north where he said withdrawal of foreign forces could likely start now.
Speaking at a meeting with Iraqi reporters, Rubaie listed cities where one ethnic group or another holds sway and has kept order for a year or more with little U.S. troop presence. The cities included Najaf, Karbala, Samawah, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah in the heavily Shiite Muslim south, and possibly Irbil and Sulaymaniyah in the predominantly Kurdish north.
Rubaie said he and Iraq's defense and interior ministers would represent their government in the joint planning with top U.S. representatives. Both sides will look at a variety of conditions for withdrawal, including the state of training and equipping of Iraqi forces, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
Discussion of withdrawal came at a time of more sectarian violence, which has been part of the fabric of Iraqi life since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's government took office on April 28. On Monday, the bodies of 19 Shiite men were discovered in a Baghdad neighborhood, police told the Associated Press. The dead men had been tied up and shot in the head and chest; some were tortured.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on Monday stressed the danger that the fight against the insurgency could worsen violent rifts among Iraq's ethnic groups. Acknowledging what others have called the threat of civil war, Khalilzad said loss of trust between Iraq's communities "underlies the current political and sectarian tensions.''
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, President Bush and top U.S. military leaders have refused to set deadlines for troop withdrawal, arguing that it would give strategic advantage to opponents and limit American options. As of last week, however, the Bush administration effectively had embraced broad deadlines, pressing for winding down a war that has become increasingly unpopular at home.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad on Wednesday to deliver a blunt message to the Iraqi constitutional committee. "We don't want any delays," Rumsfeld said, urging Iraqis to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for approval of a draft charter and citing U.S. troop deaths here. "Now is the time to get on with it."
Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and others involved in framing the constitution flirted Sunday with the idea of seeking a one-month extension, but instead pledged Monday to meet the deadline laid down in Iraq's interim constitution.
Committee members are supposed to finish a draft in time for the National Assembly to review and approve it by Aug. 15. That leaves two weeks for the disparate factions to work out matters as critical as what system of government Iraq will adopt and how much influence religion will have on it.
U.S. diplomats have dropped their hands-off stance to openly push for meeting the deadline, pulling balking Sunni Arabs into the constitutional process.
On Monday, the chairman of the constitution committee, Humam Hamoudi, dismissed the idea that delegates resented the stopwatch with which U.S. officials were timing Iraqis' progress on remaking their government. "I suggested a 30-day extension," Hamoudi said. "All the Iraqis said no.''
Leaders decided instead to refer the toughest issues to a gathering Friday of heads of the country's political parties and other blocs, in hopes that they can work out compromises, Hamoudi said.
Unresolved issues include a Kurdish-led drive for a federal system of regional governments. Sunni Arabs say that would break up Iraq if extended to include not only the northern Kurdish areas but the Shiite-majority south.
Also at issue is the extent to which religious code will govern civil code, a decision that many fear could undermine women's rights. "We are not afraid of Islamic law -- we are afraid of arbitrary interpretations, which will restrict freedom," Rand Raheem, a former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, said Monday at a news conference.
Iraqis are to vote on the charter in mid-October. If they approve it, the country will move to elections for a new government in December. After that, four or five U.S. Army brigades -- about 20,000 troops -- could start pulling out by spring if conditions were right, Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines said in June.
But U.S. officials have said military readiness as well as political development must be achieved before American forces pull out. A report by Gen. Peter Pace, incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded last month that only a "small number" of Iraqi forces were capable of fighting insurgents on their own.