Iraqi Leaders Still Split Over Key Issues

Kurdish leaders insisted Tuesday they have no plan to secede from Iraq even if they want the new constitution to give them the right to do so — one of the issues that forced a delay in finishing the draft charter.

Meetings were to resume Wednesday among Iraqi leaders seeking to finish the draft by the new deadline — midnight Aug. 22.

Iraqi leaders expressed confidence they would overcome differences over remaining issues, including Kurdish demands for self-determination and the role of Islam, by Monday.

However, many leaders were equally sanguine about prospects for meeting the original Aug. 15 deadline. If no agreement can be reached this time, the interim constitution requires that parliament be dissolved.

Different groups gave conflicting information on what had been resolved and what stood in the way of a deal.

Shiite (search) lawmakers cited the role of Islam — an issue that affects women's rights — and self-determination for the Kurds, which Arabs fear would mean they would eventually secede from the country.

President Jalal Talabani (search), a Kurd, insisted the Islam issue had been solved and "you will see in the constitution that it is not a problem."

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search), a Shiite, mentioned federalism, the election law and the formula for distributing revenue from oil and other natural resources. Sunni negotiator Mohammed Abed-Rabbou said "the most important point is federalism."

Most also cited Kurdish demands for self-determination — a step beyond federalism because it would imply the right to break away from Iraq. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted that self-determination was "not on the table."

Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (search), acknowledged that his fellow Kurds wanted self-determination but brushed aside talk of secession.

"There are rumors that the Kurds want to secede, but they are for unity," he told reporters Tuesday. He said he expected the constitution to be finished "before the deadline."

Other Kurds defended their self-determination demand, although they insisted they has no plans to secede.

"Kurdish politicians have no present intentions to gain independence. But we need self-determination in order to decide our future in case troubles erupt in Iraq in the future," said Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior official in the Kurdish Democratic Party.

"We are not making surprise or sudden demands, it is the Shiites who are doing so," said Bakhtiyar. He also said Shiites were pressing to grant special status for their clerics.

Bakhtiyar said such special status would be "a dangerous thing because every sect will seek orders from its religious leadership and this means that there will be no rule by law or constitution."

Al-Jaafari, the prime minister, said disagreements were largely over details and he expressed confidence that Iraq's constitution could be finished within a week.

"I hope that we will not need another extension. The pending points do not need too much time and God willing we will finish it on time," he said Tuesday.

The delay was an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which insisted that the original deadline be met to maintain political momentum and blunt Iraq's deadly insurgency.

The U.S. military announced Tuesday that three American soldiers were killed the night before when their vehicle overturned during combat operations in south Baghdad. At least 15 Iraqis were killed Tuesday in Baghdad and central Iraq in insurgency-related violence.

If agreement on a constitution is reached, Iraqis will vote around Oct. 15 to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country's first fully constitutional government since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, sought to downplay the delay, adding that he was convinced a deal could be reached by the new Aug. 22 deadline.

"I believe that an agreement will be arrived at if the leaders continue with the attitude of compromising, putting oneself in the shoes of the other side," Khalilzad told reporters in Baghdad.

The United States hopes political progress, including adoption of a democratic constitution, will help deflate the Sunni Arab-led rebellion and enable the Americans and their partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.

Nevertheless, the last-minute decision to postpone the deadline raised serious questions about the ability of Iraq's varied factions to make the necessary political compromises. Some Iraqi citizens were worried about the exposed fractures in the country's leadership.

"We are disappointed because we risked our lives when we went out to polling stations, but now we see each political bloc searching for its own interests," said Taha Sabir in Baghdad. "We expected a better life, but we got only many crises such as electricity and fuel shortages."