BAGHDAD, Iraq – Minutes before Monday's midnight deadline for a completed draft of the Iraqi constitution, leaders postponed a vote on it for a few more days.
Parliament was adjourned at about midnight (4 p.m. EDT) without approval of a completed draft of the charter, in order to buy more time to win over minority Sunni Arabs' support.
Those at the table will have three more days to iron out details, finalize the document and vote on it.
It was just the latest dramatic, last-minute twist in the topsy-turvy process of writing a constitution for the new Iraqi government.
Though Shiites (search) and Kurds (search) agreed on the latest version that was to be presented to parliament, Sunnis (search) weren't happy with it. Winning them over is crucial to ending the insurgency that has plagued the country since U.S. forces unseated dictator and former president Saddam Hussein (search).
Negotiators finished the draft on Monday and took it to parliament as the lawmakers convened minutes before midnight. But they decided to put off a vote and spend three more days smoothing out some unresolved points because of fierce resistance from Sunnis over issues including federalism — which Sunnis fear could cut them out of most of the country's vast oil wealth.
Sunnis issued a statement early Tuesday saying they rejected the constitution because the government and the drafting committee did not abide by an agreement for consensus.
"We reject the draft constitution that was submitted because we did not have an accord on it," said Sunni delegate Nasser al-Janabi.
Although the statement was issued after parliament had deferred a decision, it was significant because it indicates the Sunnis can try to block any accord with which they do not agree entirely. That could severely complicate the discussions in the coming days.
Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani (search) said there was strong interest in reaching unanimity on the draft "so that the constitution pleases everyone."
"All these groups in the coming three days will try, God willing to reach accord on some points that are still disagreements," he said. "The draft constitution has been received and we will work on solving the remaining problems."
He then adjourned the session without a vote.
Afterward, he told reporters that the main outstanding issues were federalism, the formation of federal units, problems related to mentioning the Baath Party in the constitution, and the division of powers between the president, the parliament and the Cabinet.
The numerous remaining issues cast doubt whether the Iraqis would be able to finish the document within a few days since the various groups have widely differing positions on all those points. Repeated delays are a deep embarrassment for the Bush administration at a time of growing doubts within the United States over the mission in Iraq.
Washington had applied enormous pressure on the Iraqis to meet the original Aug. 15 deadline but parliament instead had to grant a week's extension, which they again failed to meet.
"It is not possible to please everyone," said Humam Hammoudi, Shiite chairman of the 71-member committee that struggled for weeks to try to complete the draft. "But many things have been achieved in this constitution and we hope it will be a real step toward stability."
The first deadline to adopt a constitution expired a week ago, with Parliament voting to extend it for seven days. The legislature supposedly had to disband if the deadline was not met, but lawmakers said nothing about that late Monday.
Shiites and Kurds have enough seats in parliament to win approval for a draft without the Sunni Arabs. But the Sunni minority could scuttle the constitution when voters decide whether to ratify it in the Oct. 15 referendum. Under current rules, the constitution would be defeated if it is opposed by two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs form the majority in at least four.
In addition, an attempt by Shiites and Kurds to win parliamentary agreement without the Sunnis could risk a backlash within the community that is at the forefront of the insurgency and undercut U.S. hopes to begin withdrawing troops next year.
The Kurds demand federalism to protect their self-rule in three northern provinces. Sunni Arabs oppose that, fearing Kurds want to declare independence. Shiites are divided, with factions supporting federalism wanting to build a Shiite region in the south.
The showdown on the constitution came as violence persisted in Iraq.
The U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers from Task Force Liberty were killed Monday by a roadside bomb during a combat patrol north of Baghdad, and two more soldiers died when their vehicle overturned during a military operation near Tal Afar. At least 1,870 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
President Bush defended the war in Iraq on Monday in the face of growing skepticism, asserting that "a policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety" from terrorism.
"The only way to defend to our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live," Bush said in Salt Lake City in a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.