BAGHDAD (AFP) -Iraqi leaders were battling to strike an accord on the constitution by a midnight deadline and restore calm after deadly fighting erupted between Shiite rivals that could derail the political process.
Negotiators involved in drafting the constitution said leaders were set to hold a final meeting with Sunni Arabs in a last-minute bid to seek their nod for the charter before it goes to parliament for approval.
However, they said the eruption of violence between rival groups in the Shiite-dominated parts of southern Iraq following deadly gunbattles between security forces and insurgents in Baghdad could affect the parliament vote.
Six people have been killed and dozens wounded since late Wednesday when supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clashed with the rival Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a powerful Shiite party led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
"The Shiite clashes have come at an akward time. It threatens today”s constitutional approval as 22 MPs and two cabinet ministers are close to Moqtada Sadr and if they do not vote it will be a tough call," said Kurdish consitution committee member Mahmud Othman.
The United States, which invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein in March 2003, is pushing for the approval of the constitution, a key phase in the country”s political transition which could pave the way for a withdrawal of foreign forces.
Sadr himself, who launched two uprisings last year against US forces which left hundreds of US soldiers and his militants dead and is now a critic of the current draft constitution, appealed for calm.
"I call upon the people of Iraq… the believers… to preserve Muslims blood and go back home. I call upon them to maintain calm," he told reporters.
Clashes flared in Baghdad and several southern cities after fighting between Sadr militiamen from his Mehdi army and the rival SCIRI militia Badr in the holy city of Najaf killed five people on Wednesday.
The violence erupted after traders in the old city of Najaf, which houses the revered Imam Ali shrine, demonstrated against members of Sadr”s group who were attempting to reopen their local office which was shut down following last year”s uprising.
Within hours violence spread to Baghdad and other southern cities, including Nasiriyah where one man was killed and 13 wounded overnight.
In Baghdad, the Mehdi army, took control of Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. Though unarmed, militiamen were seen moving on the streets with no sign of Iraqi security forces.
"The security situation has raised doubts as Sadr has always maintained that he will not agree to any constitution under the American occupation and he is also against federalism," Othman added.
Sadr assumed a low profile following last year”s uprising, reportedly going to study Koranic texts, while his militia was largely disarmed in a US-backed cash-for-weapons programme.
Sadr re-emerged on Iraq”s tempestuous political scene in April, saying the fight to get US troops out of the country was now purely political.
Although Sadr”s movement officially boycotted January”s historic elections, it has about two dozen sympathizers in parliament, mostly within the ranks of the dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance.
The Shiite clashes came after a street battle between rebels and security forces Wednesday in western Baghdad that left another 15 people dead.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Arabs maintained their opposition to the draft charter, saying it would lead to the break up of the war-battered country, with some even calling it "illegal."
The charter — which the government hopes will help stem the bloody Sunni-led insurgency — was presented incomplete Monday with unresolved differences over crucial issues such as federalism, the role of Islam and sharing of oil wealth.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari on Tuesday said most issues had been resolved, with agreement on 151 of 153 articles, including the federal status of the government and the status of regions and provinces.
But Sunnis warned that even if the charter wins parliamentary approval, it would fail in a referendum due in October, ahead of elections in December.
Iraq”s interim law rules that the constitution will fail if two-third people of any three provinces vote against it. The Sunni Arabs are majority in Al-Anbar, Nineveh and Salaheddin.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday ordered two battalions to deploy to Iraq for 120 days to beef up security for the elections, while US Major General Douglas Lute said Washington was considering a drawdown of US forces as part of a strategy to put more of the security burden on to Iraq forces.
Meanwhile, a Filipino working for a US firm killed in an ambush on Wednesday by militants in the oil region of Kirkuk, the third Filipino national to be killed in an ambush in Iraq this year.