In one week can Iraq resolve its constitutional divisions?

The delegation writing the draft charter now has until Aug. 22 to overcome issues of Islam and federalism.

Admitting they couldn't agree on how to share resources and power in the new Iraq, the country's political leaders Monday gave themselves seven more days to forge a constitutional compromise that has eluded them for seven months.

Just before the midnight deadline, parliament voted themselves an extra week, until Aug. 22.

But as Iraqi politicians raced under US pressure to finish the charter, engaging in a day of negotiations over the role of Islam and Kurdish autonomy, interviews with members of the drafting committee revealed they had in fact moved further from an already elusive consensus.

Whether a week will help Iraq's Kurds, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Arabs reach consensus remains uncertain.

Kurdish delegates continue to insist on a future right to vote for full independence, something that most Iraqis oppose. Shiites want their religious leaders to have a major say in the country's new laws, which is opposed by Sunnis and Kurds. And the Sunnis worry that a federalist approach would leave Shiites and Kurds sitting on most of the country's oil wealth.

"We can not and we will not approve a constitution that our coming generations will damn us for,'' says Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni member of the constitutional drafting committee.

"I think the best option is to dissolve the parliament and have fresh elections, though I don't think the Americans will allow that. If we try to finish a constitution without real consensus, the situation here could easily get worse," he says.

If all sides don't compromise in the next week, Iraq's political leaders - particularly its dominant Shiites and Kurds - will be left with two unpalatable options. Either they ram through a constitution that further alienates the Sunni Arabs, the principal backers of the insurgency; or hold new elections, something that would effectively set the political map back to where it was when the first elections were held on Jan. 30.

The Sunni problem

Over the weekend, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, who dominate the transitional assembly, insisted that the document would be finished on time. But three of the 15 Sunnis on the drafting committee said they felt they were being railroaded by the Shiite majority and powerful Kurds.

Haseeb Araf, a Sunni leader, said "if some parties are making deals just to advance their own agendas," then Iraq's Sunnis will reject the constitution out of hand.

Hussein Shouker al-Falluji, a more hard-line Sunni on the committee, said, "The other sides are pushing to finish this but we're being ignored. This constitution can't succeed - it's a disaster for Iraq. They're putting all of our problems - ethnic and religious - into this document."

Mr. Falluji said Sunni politicians will now start mobilizing their constituents to vote against the ratification of any document that's produced. He said they will urge insurgents, whose intimidation in the dominant Sunni provinces helped keep Sunnis away from the polls last January, to stand aside for the good of the community.

One reason the constitution is being viewed as so important is because it could draw Iraq's Sunnis into the political process and thereby undermine the insurgency. But the only way to finish the document on time was to either run roughshod over Sunni concerns or for Shiites and Kurds to abandon promises they've made to their own constituencies.

"Constitutions can do two things for you," says Nathan Brown, a constitutional scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has been closely following the process in Iraq. "When you have a fundamental consensus they can codify it and enforce it. The second thing is that the process can be more important than the product; the process of getting all the sides sitting down and talking can be healthy."

The sectarian divide

Iraq has always been a geographical area uneasy with its designation as a state. The ethnic Kurds in the country's far north have been fighting for independence off-and-on for 80 years. Iraq's minority Sunnis controlled the organs of the state for more than 50 years until the fall of Saddam Hussein. Both the Kurds and the country's Shiite majority jealously looked on and were subject to frequent, bloody crackdowns under Mr. Hussein.

Now, even as the country writes its new charter, those divisions are still ever-present.

Just before midnight Monday, Shiite leader Hassen al-Senid said, "there is no option for delay" and that his faction and the Kurds had bent over backwards to satisfy Sunnis.

Moments later, Falluji, the Sunni delegate, said Sunnis had 15 points of major disagreement with the draft, and that the only option would be delay.

"Before this started, the dialogue was a lot more polite, and now everyone is clear that I'm here as a Sunni, I'm here as a Shia, or a Kurd. It's broken down on ethnic and religious lines,'' says Mr. Brown. "Just because a consensual process is necessary doesn't mean that it's going to work."

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