August 16, 2005
Leaders in Iraq Extend Deadline on Constitution
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By DEXTER FILKINS and JAMES GLANZ
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 15 - The Iraqi political process descended toward
paralysis on Monday, when leaders failed to meet the deadline for completing
the new constitution and voted to give themselves another week to resolve
fundamental disagreements over the future and identity of this fractious
Several of the leaders said the disagreements, revolving around Islam, oil
and the distribution of political power, grew sharper and more numerous as
the day dragged on. Some said they were pessimistic that such vast
differences could be resolved at all, much less in seven days.
"The differences are huge, and there is not enough determination from the
political leaders to solve the problems," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader
in the negotiations. "Almost 50 percent of the constitution is not finished
The final push for consensus, held inside the fortified Green Zone, began
Monday morning and ended minutes before midnight, when senior Iraqi leaders
told the country's elected assembly that they had been unable to reach a
deal. The assembly quickly voted to amend the interim constitution, which
had decreed Aug. 15 as the deadline, to give the drafters an extra week.
For now, the date for the nationwide referendum on the constitution, Oct.
15, and for parliamentary elections, on Dec. 15, remain unchanged. Yet some
Iraqi leaders were already discussing the possibility of dissolving Iraq's
National Assembly and holding fresh elections if they fail to agree on a
constitution by Monday.
That option would be a last resort, the Iraqis said, partly because of fears
that it could throw Iraq into a full-blown political crisis and possibly
embolden the insurgency.
"If this delay will solve the problem, it's O.K.," said Haseeb Aref, a Sunni
member of the constitutional committee. "But if it will not solve the
problem, then we will find it is necessary to dissolve the National Assembly
and have a new election."
Kurdish leaders also said they planned to push for a dissolution of the
National Assembly and for new elections if a constitution did not emerge by
President Bush played down the delay and applauded the Iraqis, saying,
"Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult
problems can be solved peacefully through debate."
The Bush administration has been pressing Iraqi leaders to finish the
constitution by the deadline, hoping that progress on the political front
will eventually allow it to begin reducing the number of American troops
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Mr. Bush's sentiment, noting that
the vote to delay indicated "considerable momentum toward completion" of the
But another administration official, who was not allowed to speak publicly,
said "there's a lot of nervousness" within the administration over the
The crucial disagreements were the same ones that for weeks have bedeviled
the Iraqis who have been laboring to write a constitution: the importance of
Islam in Iraqi law, the rights of women, the division of oil wealth and the
desire of Shiite leaders to establish their own semi-independent region in
At least two other issues, seemingly settled, arose again to intensify the
stalemate. Kurdish leaders insisted on the right of three predominantly
Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq to secede. And Shiite leaders tried to
insert a provision that would declare senior Shiite clerics independent of
the government and to be symbols for the nation, a move that raised concerns
that the Shiite leaders were planting the seeds for a theocracy.
The disputes reflect the different views of national identity held by the
main ethnic and sectarian groups: the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, in
the case of the Kurds, and now the Shiites, the disagreements reflect a lack
of enthusiasm about the very notion of an Iraqi state.
In the face of the rancor, Iraq's leaders expressed confidence that they
would be able to bridge their differences by Monday.
"They need time," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said after the vote. "I
think next week will be enough."
The Iraqis failed to break the impasse despite the intense efforts of the
American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who huddled with Iraqi leaders and
proposed compromises throughout the day. Near midnight, Mr. Khalilzad
entered the National Assembly chambers with President Jalal Talabani, who
introduced him to the members as a "dear brother."
But leaning on the Iraqis to produce a consensus where none may yet exist
also raised the risk of exacerbating tensions among the country's major
groups. Nearly all of the major disputes over the constitution divide along
ethnic and religious lines. Iraqi leaders said there were limits to how far
their respective communities would allow them to go in order to make a deal.
"We already have a problem with our people," said Mr. Mutlak, the Sunni
leader, speaking of the Shiite demand for an autonomous region. "This is one
agreement we cannot make, because if we make it we cannot walk in the street
As if to underscore American concerns over the dangers of delaying the
constitution, a mortar shell, apparently fired by insurgents, exploded just
short of the Green Zone as the negotiations unfolded.
Iraqi leaders began meeting at 10 a.m. for what they hoped would be a
session to wrap up a few remaining differences. Instead, a plethora of
disagreements burst forth.
By the end of the day, the divergence was so great that there was not even a
consensus on the main points of disagreement. For example, Haseeb Aref, a
Sunni, said he believed that the role that Islamic law should play in
drawing up legislation had been settled, but Barham Salih, a Kurd, said
delicately that "differences of opinion" remained on the relationship
between the state and religion.
Mr. Salih, in turn, said the status of Iraqi Kurdistan as a semiautonomous
region had been accepted by all, while other negotiators said they were
appalled by last-minute Kurdish demands.
Amid the kaleidoscopic array of claims and counterclaims, a few central
disagreements stood out.
The first was the Shiite demand for an autonomous region in southern Iraq
that would consist of the nine Shiite-dominated provinces - half of Iraq's
provinces. Sunni leaders, and even some secular Shiites, continued to oppose
it, saying that it could fatally weaken the nation.
The second sticking point was a renewed push by the Kurds for the right to
leave the Iraqi state. Kurdish leaders said their demands were justified by
history, as their people have long been brutalized by governments in
"The Arabs and every people on the earth, they have the right to
self-determination," said Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish leader. "So what's wrong
Even issues of a far lesser magnitude, like the question of whether Iraqis
should be able to hold dual citizenship, rose again. Likewise, the outlines
of an agreement made days earlier on the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth
appeared to come apart. The oil discussions broke down as negotiators tried
to make almost existential distinctions between known and
Perhaps the most highly charged of the day's disagreements involved a
renewed Shiite demand that their religious leadership, a council of
ayatollahs called the Marjariya, should be declared independent of the Iraqi
"The government should not interfere in their affairs," Sheik Khalid al-Atiyya,
a prominent Shiite member of the constitutional committee.
But others, including some secular Shiite leaders, regarded the proposal as
an improper mixing of the mosque and the state.
"I fear this is a first step in setting up an Islamic state," said Raja
Kuzai, a Shiite member of the National Assembly. "The Marjariya should not
be in the constitution."
Mr. Salih sought to put a positive face on the messy turn of events by
comparing them to the authoritarian predictability of the government that
ruled Iraq until 2003.
"It's an historical turning point in Iraqi history after a government that
ran the country by fire and steel," Mr. Salih said, adding, "We need to
solve our disagreements."
Joel Brinkley contributed reporting from Washington for this article.