BAGHDAD (AFP) -Iraq weighed the fallout from its failure to meet a deadline to draft a new constitution, facing warnings of fresh political turmoil if it does not complete the charter next week.
Iraqi MPs granted a one-week extension to draft the country”s post-Saddam Hussein constitution after leaders missed a midnight Monday deadline to submit it to parliament despite intense US pressure to wrap up the charter on time.
"This is a one-time extension… if Iraq misses the next deadline, we have to dissolve the national assembly, the government will collapse and fresh elections will have to be held," Kurdish panelist Munther al-Fadhal told AFP.
The main sticking points in drafting the consitution, a key phase in the Iraq”s political rebirth, were the role of Islam, federalism and distribution of national oil wealth.
Fadhal said the present interim law stipulates that it can be amended only once to seek an extension for drafting the charter, which is due to be put to a referendum in mid-October followed by new elections by the end of the year.
Exhausted negotiators were taking stock of Monday”s dramatic events and said there would be no talks on Tuesday, despite the new August 22 deadline.
"Nothing will happen today," Kurdish constitution committee member Mahmud Othman said.
"Everyone is tired after the last week”s hectic activities. It is like a holiday today," Othman told AFP, adding that a scheduled assembly meeting Tuesday was delayed.
Despite the missed deadline, US leaders who had expected an agreement right up until the last minute hailed the faltering process as "democracy at work".
"I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue," President George W. Bush said.
"Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise," he said in a statement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also upbeat about the work of Iraq”s Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis to nail down a constitution 28 months after US-led forces ousted Saddam.
Rice said the request for a seven-day extension in the deadline was "in full accordance" with interim law adopted to end the US occupation.
"We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq," she said. "We are confident that they will complete this process and continue on the path toward elections for a permanent government at the end of the year."
US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad blamed the failure on a Baghdad sandstorm which he said had led to the loss of three negotiating days. "I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days."
One Shiite said he was optimistic an agreement would be reached, but indicated a draft might be presented without all parties on board.
"I think we”ll be able to overcome the differences, I hope we”ll do it before the next deadline, during this week," Jawad al-Maliki told AFP.
"We are not seeking 100 percent consensus — the most important thing is that the people of Iraq accept (the constitution) in a referendum."
A number of differences remain, but in the days leading up to Monday”s deadline, a broad consensus had seemingly emerged between the Kurds and Shiites who both favour a federal structure for Iraq.
The once dominant Sunni Arabs, however, fear a federalism with regionally-autonomous governments could leave them without a share of the country”s vast oil reserves, which lie largely in the Kurdish zone of the north and the Shiite south.
An initial agreement to share the oil revenues has been agreed, but the mechanism to distribute it remains to be formulated.
Kurdish MPs blamed Sunni Arabs for the missed deadline.
"The Sunni Arabs are way apart on the issue of federalism… I doubt if they would come on board even during the next one week," Othman said. "But next time I think the MPs will approve the draft without the Sunnis."
In a special session Monday night, the 275-member parliament voted by a show of hands to amend the present interim law with a fresh deadline of August 22, side-stepping the need to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections.
"The national assembly should draft the permanent constitution within a period ending by August 22," parliament speaker Hajim al-Hasani said.
Although the missed deadline was on the front pages of most newspapers, editorials hammered the fledgling administration for ignoring basic amenities in the war-torn country, where power cuts and water shortages are recurring problems.
"Why talk about progress in the political process when the quality of life is deteriorating at all levels," said Al-Mashriq, a daily close to the Kurdish community.