Iraq's draft constitution delayed - again
Just before the midnight deadline, negotiators pulled the draft saying they need three more days to resolve major disputes.
Shortly before missing a second deadline in a week for finishing a draft constitution, Iraq's top political leaders executed a legal maneuver to buy more time for negotiations without explicitly calling it another delay.Skip to next paragraph
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At about 11:50 p.m. Hajim al-Hassani, the chairman of Iraq's parliament, told Iraqi lawmakers at a hastily convened session that a draft constitution was ready. But then he explained there were three outstanding constitutional issues that will hopefully be resolved in the next three days. No drafts were handed either to legislators or journalists.
This appeared to be an attempt to fulfill rules set last week that required a draft be submitted to parliament by midnight Monday by taking advantage of the semantic ambiguity of the word "submitted" and avoiding the embarrassment of a further official delay.
But delay - a short one to be sure - was once again the outcome of marathon negotiations, reflecting the deep divide between Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds about the fundamental structure of the state.
"They have met the legal requirement,'' US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview with CNN, acknowledging this was an effective delay. He explained that "on a number of issues they don't have consensus or near consensus yet so its understandable they would take a few more days."
Mr. Khalilzad has in many ways been at the center of Iraq's constitutional storm in recent weeks. He has had to balance the drive to push a draft through quickly - something the Bush administration wants - with the recognition that if a constitution is completed without buy-in from Iraq's Sunni Arabs it won't have a chance of fulfilling its primary goal: ending the war.
"If they make the deadline because the Shiites and Kurds essentially rammed a draft through over Sunni Arab objections, there will be hell to pay,'' Wayne White, who was the principal Iraq analyst for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until his retirement earlier this year, warned shortly before the delay was announced.
For the past few days, Iraq's Sunni Arab political leaders have complained they were being ignored by Kurdish and Shiite negotiators, and that they were not going to agree to a constitution on schedule, even as Kurds and Shiites insisted that a draft would be submitted on time, with or without Sunni support.
The situation has put Khalilzad and the US in a strange role in the new Iraq: protectors, for now at least, of Sunni interests.
"Zalmay is the boss,'' said Saleh Mutlak, a leading Sunni member of the drafting committee, before tonight's delay. "He's played a very good role slowing the other parties down, in talking to those who are asking for too much."
The US envoy and Iraq's Sunni Arab leadership might seem strange bedfellows. The Sunnis continue to refer to the country's Sunni-led insurgency as the "resistance" and often view the US project here as determined to convert them into Iraq's new underclass. After all, the toppling of Saddam Hussein lifted the boot from the necks of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, and ended the dominant status of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Now, forging a consensus that might turn the constitution into a sort of peace pact looks it will take more time.
But both Khalilzad and Shiite leaders indicated tonight that time is running out. Mr. Hassani, a Shiite leader, and Khalilzad, said the elusive quest for consensus will be abandoned at the end of this three-day extension. After that a draft is to be voted on by parliament, where the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted Iraq's January elections, have almost no voice.
Indefinite delay does not look likely. While Iraq's Sunnis would like the interim parliament dissolved and fresh elections held - in which they expect to win more seats - before a constitution is written, both Shiites and Kurd's are chomping at the bit.
Iraq's Shiite majority, who control the interim parliament, are eager to take control of a fully sovereign nation. Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who have fought the central government from their northern stronghold for much of the last 80 years, are also eager for a quick result that will create a federal Iraq that guarantees them wide autonomy.