Iraq constitution may be delayed

Drafters say it is unlikely that disputes over sharia and Kurdish autonomy will be settled by Aug. 15.

With a deadline looming for Iraq's constitutional drafting committee, the key players in the process remain as far apart as ever on the most divisive questions, and it now looks unlikely that a document will be finished on schedule.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the drafting committee, said that a formal request for more time would be submitted to the transitional legislature Monday, something that was confirmed by other members of the legislature. Mr. Othman said disputes over how much power to devolve to Iraq's Kurds and the role of sharia, or Islamic law, have been the main sticking points.

Under current rules, Monday is the last day that the parliament can ask for a delay on the original Aug. 15 deadline for writing the constitution. "Maybe Aug. 15 is still possible, but we can't say for certain,'' says Othman.

Negotiations were carrying on Sunday night under heavy US pressure, with some people involved suggesting they could still make the deadline. Any delay would be a blow for US officials, who have been arguing that a finished constitution will undercut support for Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency and create the political conditions for peace here. US officials have also set the meeting of deadlines as a key metric for success in the absence of practical progress in limiting violence or restoring basic services.

"The Americans are in a hurry for a constitution, but they should understand the need for more time,'' says Othman. "You don't want to rush and end up with something that does more harm than good."

The constitution is part of the US exit strategy from Iraq, says Ghassan Atiyyah, a political scientist who advised on early versions of Iraq's constitution. "But the constitution as an element of a democracy, or of uniting a divided Iraq, is already a dead idea. It's in the hands of politicians most interested in their own power," he says.

Emblematic of the gulf between Iraq's dominant Shiite Arabs, ethnic Kurds, and the minority Sunni Arabs, has been an inability to agree on a name for the country. Shiite officials have been pushing for the "Islamic Republic of Iraq," Kurds for the "Federal Republic of Iraq," and Sunni Arabs for the "Republic of Iraq."

Under a possible draft of the constitution leaked by Shiite officials to a local newspaper last week, Islam would be the main basis for Iraq's legislation and senior Shiite clergy would have a powerful role advising law makers.

That provision worries both Kurds, who tend to favor secular law, and Iraq's Sunni Arabs, some of whom fear Shiite hegemony. The Kurds want the federal nature of the state to be emphasized because they're hoping to achieve autonomy and expanded territory including the city of Kirkuk, home to Iraq's second largest oil fields.

Both the Sunnis and the Shiites are uncomfortable with Kurdish views on federalism, because they worry about lost oil revenue and a weakening of the central government that could lead to a break up of the country.

All three major factions have said they can't imagine compromising on these issues, and it appears their constituencies are just as obdurate.

"Religion isn't too difficult. We don't want an Islamic republic, but we can accept Islam as 'a' source of legislation a long as it's not 'the' source of legislation,'' says Faraj al-Haydari, a legislator and official with the Kurdish Democratic Party. "But Kirkuk? Without Kirkuk there can be no agreement. We'll just walk away, and go back to the north."

The dominant Shiite religious parties are demanding a dramatically expanded role for Islam in government.

"We can't afford to be an Islamic country like Iran. We're Muslims, we respect Islam, but we don't want it to be politicized in that way,'' said Mr. Othman, explaining the general Kurdish position.

While it seems that no ground for compromise on big issues exists yet, some members have mulled writing a vague constitution that would leave aside the final status of Kirkuk, for instance, until later.

Though this is something the Kurds are staunchly opposed to, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad indicated earlier last week that this was a solution that might satisfy the US. "Some issues can be once and for all resolved and for other issues there can be a set of procedures, rules, and a road map to a possible future solution," he told reporters.

Mr. Khalilzad has taken an usually muscular public stance toward the drafters in order to push them to finish the job quickly, and US officials have also been hoping to guide the process in a less Islamic direction. But a strong role for Islam now appears certain.

For instance, one section of the draft that has achieved broad agreement, drafters say, is an article that states "the followers of any religion or sect are free to choose their civil status according to their religious ... beliefs." Iraqi women's rights activists say this will in practice leave family and marriage law for most women in the hands of religious courts, which favor men.

"I voted because I support an Islamic country 100 percent, because I believe in God, the prophet Muhammad, and the 12 Imams,'' says Ibrahim Mustafa, a Shiite sidewalk vendor in Baghdad's Karrada district. "I'm not so sure about federalism.... The Kurdish areas are part of Iraq, and they should have to give up their army, and not get control of the oil."

Iraq's Sunni Arabs have been grudgingly participating in the drafting process since two key Sunni officials working with the committee were assassinated last week. Nabil Yunos of the Dignity Party argues for delay. "We need time and stability to sort these things out. Most people think federalism will separate and divide the Iraqi people further. If we keep going this way, the constitution will create more turbulence, more terrorism. We have to reach a consensus."

In a stark illustration of the difference here, the KDP has recently been distributing a map that stakes out territorial claims that would extend Kurdish territory by roughly a third.

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