Iraqi Parliament Haggling Over Constitution

The head of the committee drafting Iraq's constitution said Tuesday that three days are not enough to win over the Sunni Arabs, and the document they rejected may ultimately have to be approved by parliament as is and submitted to the people in a referendum.

Iraqi leaders completed a draft Monday night and submitted it to parliament, but with only minutes to go before a midnight deadline, they delayed a vote to give them time to convince Sunni Arab negotiators to accept it.

At a news conference, drafting committee chairman Humam Hammoudi (search) acknowledged that three days would probably be too short to win over Sunnis, who objected to wording on federalism, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (search), the description of Iraq as an Islamic — but not Arab — country, and other parts of the document.

Asked how to break the impasse, Hammoudi said "the Iraqi people will rule" and suggested that the elected parliament could debate the issues and take a decision. Shiites and Kurds, who accepted the agreement, dominate the assembly.

Approving the draft and submitting it to voters in an Oct. 15 referendum risks a backlash among Sunni Arabs, who are at the forefront of the insurgency. Luring them away from violence and into the political process was a major U.S. goal for the constitution.

But Hammoudi noted that unlike the Shiite and Kurd negotiators, the Sunni Arabs were not elected parliament members but were appointed to the committee. Sunni Arabs won only 17 of the 275 parliament seats because so many Sunnis boycotted the Jan. 30 election.

"Those who are representing the brother Sunni Arabs are not elected," Hammoudi said. "Therefore, who can say that they really represent the people on the street ... therefor the Sunnis have to express their opinion."

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search), a Shiite, appeared to make an overture to the minority.

"Some of the political groups have some reservations and we will study them and try to reach a solution in the next three days," he said at a news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday.

"Our Sunni Arab brothers faced some circumstances in the past that prevented them from having real representation [(in parliament] in what is equal to their demography and we hope that in the future they will be better represented."

The wrangling over the constitution came as violence persisted in Iraq. A U.S. Marine was killed Monday when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle near the troubled city of Fallujah (search), the military said.

The latest death brought to at least 65 the number of American troops killed in Iraq this month. At least 1,871 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, was devastated in November when the Marines retook it from guerrillas and has been the scene of increasingly frequent clashes.

Monday night's last-minute scrambling by the constitutional committee came one week after the original Aug. 15 deadline.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett urged patience and flexibility.

"These issues are difficult to iron out and I think we should show some patience," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "Every time we've had a deadline, the Iraqi people have lived up to those deadlines ... so deadlines are important ... and it's important to help focus the process, but at the same time we ought to be flexible and allow them to work out their differences."

The 15 Sunni members of the drafting committee issued a statement saying they had rejected the proposal because the government and the committee did not abide by an agreement for consensus. They said agreement on the document was still far off.

Despite the failure to finalize the proposal for a second time in two weeks, government spokesman Laith Kubba said the proceedings demonstrated the democratic nature of the drafting process.

"After a long discussion, this is the best we could get. The Iraqi people can accept or reject this new constitution. This is a new experiment." Kubba said. "The process should be completed."

But Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of four top Sunni negotiators, said more than 20 issues still divide the sides.

Sunnis, who dominated Iraqi society under Saddam, oppose decentralization, fearing it would cut them out of the country's oil wealth and leave them powerless.

Hammoudi said a federal structure was critical to maintaining democracy in Iraq.

"With all this oil income, the central government will turn into, whether we like it or not, a dictatorship," he said.

If no compromise can be reached on the Sunni demands, "we will turn it to the Iraqi people to say yes or no," he said.

Sunni leaders have threatened to order their followers to vote "no" in the October referendum on the constitution unless their objections are addressed.

In Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 60 miles north of Baghdad, hundreds of people lined up Tuesday in front of voter registration centers.

"We came here ... to register our names and we should not commit a mistake as we did before," said resident Hameed Hassan. Sunnis boycotted the January elections for the National Assembly, giving them much reduced political influence compared to the Kurds and Shiites.

Adnan Latif, head of the center, said about 5,000 voters had registered so far.

But in the city of Najaf, the seat of the Shiite clerical hierarchy, celebrations broke out after the draft constitution was presented to lawmakers. Crowds carrying Iraqi flags streamed through the city center and a number of police vehicles took part in the impromptu celebrations.

The constitutional draft declares that Islam is "a main source" of legislation. It states that no law may contradict Islamic and democratic standards or "the essential rights and freedoms mentioned in this constitution."

The draft "guarantees the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people" but also "guarantees all religious rights" and states that all Iraqis "are free within their ideology and the practice of their ideological practices."

The text also declares both Arabic and Kurdish as official languages, bringing Kurdish to an equal status nationwide.

In other developments:

— Iraqi Transportation Minister Salam al-Malki (search) said late Monday that Syria is not involved in the Iraqi insurgency. Some American and Iraqi officials have said Syria contributes to the violence by allowing fighters to cross into Iraq.

— Iraq's Environment Minister Narmin Othman (search) escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen attacked her convoy, police said Tuesday. Three bodyguards were wounded in the attack Monday near Adhaim, 60 miles north of Baghdad. Othman belongs to President Jalal Talabani's (search) Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.