BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Fearing constitution talks are deadlocked, Shiite negotiators planned to study new proposals from Sunni and Kurdish delegates Friday after suggesting that the draft should go forward to the voters in two months as it is.
A Sunni negotiator, meanwhile, pointed the finger at the Kurds, saying their "intransigence" over the issue of federalism, which the Sunnis oppose. A meeting was expected later Friday, after the parliament speaker declared the talks would last at least another day after the third deadline was missed.
Several Shiite negotiators, expressing frustration with the continued delays, said Thursday there was no need for unanimity or a parliament vote and that the draft approved by them and the Kurds last Monday should go to voters in an Oct. 15 referendum without further changes.
However, The New York Times reported in its Friday edition that President George W. Bush had personally called Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq”s most powerful Shiite leaders, to urge against bypassing the Sunnis and parliament.
The United States, hoping to lure Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency, had pressed the Shiites and Kurds to accept unelected 15 Sunni negotiators on the drafting committee last spring to ensure that the pivotal community was represented. Sunni Arabs form the core of the insurgency.
The newspaper said the Shiites believe their Sunni interlocutors are all supporters of Saddam Hussein”s Baath Party and are out to block any agreement.
On Friday, about 5,000 people, some carrying Saddam”s picture, rallied in the mostly Sunni city of Baqouba to protest the draft constitution. The rally was organized by the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group whose spokesman is a constitution negotiator.
Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni who was elected on the mostly Sunni ticket headed by former President Ghazi al-Yawer, agreed that the law does not require a parliament vote. But Kurdish negotiator Mahmoud Othman acknowledged U.S. pressure but would not confirm that Bush had called al-Hakim.
Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, said federalism, including al-Hakim”s demand for a Shiite mini-state in the south, remained the major obstacle. But they said the Kurds were unwilling to budge on that issue in order to protect their own self-ruled region in three northern provinces.
"Federalism is now the core issue. In light of Kurdish intransigence it makes it difficult to hope for a compromise," said Sadoun Zubaydi, a Sunni member of the drafting committee.
Sunni Arabs fear that federalism will lead to the breakup of the country and deprive them of oil wealth, concentrated in the Shiite south and the north, much of it in areas the Kurds rule or want to incorporate.
But Kurds and the majority Shiites bitterly recall decades of oppression at the hands of Saddam”s Sunni-dominated dictatorship. They believe federalism is the best way to prevent a new dictator.
Zubaydi said the Sunni delegation had proposed granting the Kurdish north, consisting of three provinces, full federal status, with decentralized local government for the remaining 15 provinces.
The Sunnis want federalism limited to three provinces, while the current draft sets no limit on the number of provinces which could join a federal region. The Kurds oppose measures which would limit the size of self-ruled area because they want to incorporate oil-rich Kirkuk, which contains substantial non-Kurdish populations.
The bitter negotiations, rather than serving to bring the country”s disparate ethnic, cultural and religious groups closer together appear instead to be pushing them further apart.
The Shiite alliance and the Kurds together control 221 of the 275 parliament seats and could win easily in a parliamentary vote on the charter, which requires only a majority. And with 60 percent of the population, the Shiites and their Kurdish allies are gambling that the draft would win approval in the referendum. However, the perception that the Shiites and Kurds pushed through a document unacceptable to the Sunnis could sharpen religious and ethnic tensions.
U.S. President George W. Bush”s administration expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached.
"I think if Iraqi leaders say that they need a few days more to complete a historic document that will lay a foundation for a new and free Iraq, I think that that is certainly understandable," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after the delay was announced.
Although the constitution requires only a simple majority in the referendum, if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote against it, the charter will be defeated.
Sunni Arabs are about 20 percent of the national population but form the majority in at least four provinces. Sunni clerics have begun urging their followers to vote down the charter in the referendum if Sunni interests are not served.
If voters reject the constitution, parliament will be dissolved and elections held by December 15 to form a new one. The new parliament then starts drafting a new constitution.