BAGHDAD, Iraq – A blinding sandstorm in Baghdad (search) Monday forced the postponement of marathon negotiations between Iraqi political leaders working to overcome obstacles blocking agreement on a new constitution, with only a week before a deadline to complete it.
Saddam Hussein's (search) family, meanwhile, said it has dissolved his Jordan-based legal team and appointed Iraqi lawyer Khalil Dulaimi as the "one and sole legal counsel." The move was seen as reorganizing the defense ahead of Saddam's upcoming trial.
President Jalal Talabani (search) hosted a first round of constitutional talks at his Baghdad home Sunday, but a second meeting, originally scheduled for Monday evening, was canceled as the storm reduced visibility in the capital to near zero. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani had planned to attend, but was stranded in northern Iraq since the storm grounded aircraft.
Participants said the 2 1/2-hour meeting Sunday produced no breakthroughs with the Aug. 15 deadline looming, and Sunni Arabs repeated their opposition to transforming Iraq into a federal state — a key demand of the Kurdish minority seeking to protect the self-rule its region has held since 1991.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab, said the leaders did manage to prepare a "working program" for a second session Monday afternoon. He would not elaborate.
With divisions deep on key issues like the role of Islam, federalism and national identity, Talabani acknowledged that agreement would not come quickly. Some Iraqi politicians said intense American pressure would be required to bring all sides together.
Before the meeting, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged all the parties to make compromises so Iraq "will serve as a democratic model" for the Middle East and "take its proper place in the international community."
Talabani, a Kurd, said the leaders recognized the gravity of the challenge facing them and would exert all efforts to meet the deadline.
"After this meeting, we're going to have continuous meetings and I'm optimistic that we will reach, God willing, positive results," he said. The Bush administration hopes a new constitution will build political momentum and, over time, lure many Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency, which is rooted in that once-dominant but now discontented minority.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the insurgency in Iraq was losing steam as a political force.
"If you think about how to defeat an insurgency, you defeat it not just militarily but politically," Rice said in an article appearing on Time magazine's Web site.
Once parliament ratifies the constitution, voters will deliver their verdict in an Oct. 15 referendum. Passage would lead to national elections in mid-December.
If all goes according to plan, the United States envisions being able to begin pulling out some of its 140,000-strong military force in Iraq starting next year.
The approach of the charter deadline has brought hardened political positions. Shiites insist Islam be declared the main source of legislation, which is opposed by Kurds and many female activists fearing a rollback of their rights. Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, strongly oppose the key Kurdish demand for federalism.
With some of Saddam's more than 22-lawyer strong defense team criticized for past comments deemed damaging to the defense, a statement by Saddam's family, and signed by his oldest daughter Raghad, said the family was "obliged to rearrange the legal defense campaign given the unique nature of the case."
The statement did not elaborate on the reasons. But a person close to the family with knowledge of the case said they were angered by statements issued by various lawyers and wanted only one legal voice to speak on Saddam's behalf. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting the family.
One of the Iraqi judges who have interrogated Saddam also accused the ex-leader's lawyers of making up stories of ill-treatment in hopes the trial will be moved outside Iraq.
In an interview Sunday, Judge Munir Haddad, an Iraqi Kurd, told Associated Press Television News that Saddam's first trial will begin "within 45 to 50 days." The first trial will involve Saddam's alleged role in the 1982 massacre of Shiite Muslims in Dujail north of Baghdad.
Haddad denied recent claims by al-Dulaimi that the former president was attacked during a court appearance in late July and said such stories were an attempt to get the trial moved to Europe, where the death sentence is banned.
Also Monday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, seeking to stem unrest after about 1,000 protesters clashed with police in riots over shoddy utility services, sent a government delegation to the riot-torn city of Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. One person was killed and 75 others injured in the clashes Sunday in the Shiite city where Japanese troops are based.
The city was generally calm, despite earlier rocket-propelled grenade attacks targeting the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite group that was widely blamed for the shoddy services. Demonstrators also damaged the governor's office.
Scattered violence across Iraq left at least 13 people dead on Sunday, but no new insurgent attacks were reported Monday.
The U.S. command also said Sunday that two Army soldiers and a Marine died in two bombings the previous day. That brought to 30 the number of U.S. personnel killed this month — most by roadside blasts and suicide bombings.
At least 1,828 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.