Bowing to intense U.S. pressure, the head of the commission writing Iraq's (search) new constitution agreed Monday to stick to the Aug. 15 deadline to complete the draft on condition that political leaders can exert their influence to overcome remaining differences.
Chairman Humam Hammoudi (search) told parliament that he had recommended the commission formally ask the National Assembly for more time after the members deadlocked on such issues as the role of Islam (search), federalism and distribution of the national wealth.
But U.S. authorities ratcheted up pressure Sunday to stick by the deadline, which Washington considers essential to maintain political momentum, undermine the insurgency and pave the way for the Americans and their coalition partners to draw down troops next year.
After meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, President Jalal Talabani (search) said Sunday that all efforts must be made to stick by the timetable and finish the charter by Aug. 15. Intense meetings took place late into the night to find a way out of the impasse.
The deadline for the commission to ask for an extension was Monday. Appearing before parliament Monday, Hammoudi said that if political leaders meet this week to resolve the differences, "on Aug. 15 we can be able to conclude the constitution."
Hammoudi added one condition: "that the leaders of the bloc meet on Aug. 5, and on Aug. 12, we receive the results of their discussion. If there are any points of disagreement among the leaders, they will be brought forward to the National Assembly in order for them to solve it."
Khalilzad told reporters after Hammoudi's announcement that the United States was sure that compromises could be made.
"There are options that can be identified," he said. "If there is good will and preparedness to compromise, then it can be arrived at. I urge the leaders to come with that spirit."
The interim constitution, which forms the legal framework for all current Iraqi government activities, states that parliament must approve the draft by Aug. 15 — not simply that the committee produce the document.
If the political leaders cannot reach agreement before parliament receives the document, legislative approval could slip beyond the deadline. Once the document receives parliamentary approval, the charter goes to the voters for approval in a referendum in mid-October.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad on Wednesday to insist that the Iraqis finish the constitution on time. The deliberations took place against the backdrop of continuing violence.
On Sunday, the U.S. military announced that five more American service members died in a pair of explosions in Baghdad the day before. Their deaths brought the number of Americans killed in the last week to 16.
Members of the drafting committee had been warning for weeks that although 90 percent of the document was completed, the 71 members could not agree on a handful of key issues, including federalism, the role of Islam, distribution of national wealth and the name of the country.
The Shiites were pressing for language declaring Islam the main source of legislation, whereas the Kurds wanted religious teachings to be one of a number of sources.
The Kurds were holding out for federalism, which many Sunnis fear will lead to the breakup of the state. Even among those who support federalism, broad differences exist on such details as the limits of regional power and a formula for distributing oil wealth.
A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he believed the Aug. 15 deadline can be met.
But the official acknowledged the option of requesting an extension for submitting the charter to the parliament. He said that as long as Iraqi leaders can hold the referendum in mid-October, the political process will be on track.
If two-thirds of the people in any three of the 18 provinces vote against it during the October referendum, the constitution will be defeated. Kurds form an overwhelming majority in three provinces and Sunni Arabs hold sway in at least four.
Since assuming his post this month, Khalilzad has urged the Iraqis to show statesmanship and compromise to forge a "national compact" in which Sunni Arabs would gradually abandon the insurgency and enable American troops to go home.
The Americans fear that any delay in the constitutional process would serve as an opening to insurgents and widen the gulf among ethnic and religious groups.