BAGHDAD, Iraq – The speaker of Iraq's parliament announced a one-day extension early Friday in talks on the new constitution — a fourth attempt to win Sunni Arab approval. But he said that if no agreement is reached, the document would bypass parliament and be decided in an Oct. 15 referendum.
Shiite leaders signaled they had lost patience with protracted negotiating and wanted to refer the draft approved by them and the Kurds (search) last Monday to the electorate. With repeated missed deadlines and no sign of compromise, a process designed to bring the country's disparate ethnic, cultural and religious groups closer together appeared instead to be pushing them further apart.
A Shiite power play would undercut one of Washington's goals for the constitution: to invigorate a political process that will lure disaffected Sunni Arabs (search) away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency so that U.S. and other foreign troops can begin to go home next year.
The Bush administration, however, expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached.
"I think if Iraqi leaders say that they need a few days more to complete a historic document that will lay a foundation for a new and free Iraq, I think that that is certainly understandable," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack (search) said after the delay was announced.
Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni who was elected on the mostly Sunni ticket headed by former President Ghazi al-Yawer, also said he remained hopeful of a deal.
"We found that time was late and we saw that the matters will need another day in order to reach results that please everyone," al-Hassani said on national television shortly after the midnight deadline. The Friday session was an attempt to give the Shiites time to respond to proposals tabled at a late-night meeting for which they did not show up.
Al-Hassani agreed that no parliamentary vote was required since the assembly fulfilled its legal obligations by accepting the Shiite and Kurdish-approved draft on Monday.
"If we will not be able to reach agreements in the end, this constitution is going to be presented to the Iraqis in an Oct. 15 referendum," al-Hassani said. "Legally we do not need the parliament to vote on the draft, but we need only a consensus so that all the Iraqis will say yes to the constitution."
Monday was the second deadline which the legislature granted after the drafting committee failed to meet the Aug. 15 date set in the interim constitution.
The parliament speaker said that discussions over the previous three days were "very good, in which points of views were exchanged." He said they discussed federalism, references to Saddam Hussein's Baath party and the constitution's introduction.
The Shiite alliance and the Kurds together control 221 of the 275 parliament seats and could win easily in a parliamentary vote on the charter, which requires only a majority. And with 60 percent of the population, the Shiites and their Kurdish allies are gambling that the draft would win approval in the referendum.
However, the perception that the Shiites and Kurds pushed through a document unacceptable to the Sunnis could sharpen religious and ethnic tensions.
As a sign of deep religious and ethnic tensions already tearing at Iraq, police found the bodies of 36 men Thursday in a dry river bed near the Iranian border, their hands bound and with bullet wounds in the head.
The bodies contained no identification and police said most were wearing baggy trousers favored by Kurds. But when photographers arrived, they saw the bodies wearing normal clothing.
Also Thursday, gunmen opened fire on cars owned by President Jalal Talabani, killing eight of his bodyguards and wounding 15, a security official said. Talabani, a Kurd, was not in any of the cars when the attack occurred in a mixed Shiite-Sunni area north of Baghdad.
Although the constitution requires only a simple majority in the referendum, if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it, the charter will be defeated.
Sunni Arabs are about 20 percent of the national population but form the majority in at least four provinces. Sunni clerics have begun urging their followers to vote down the charter in the referendum if Sunni interests are not served.
But some Shiites have expressed doubt that the Sunnis could muster a two-thirds majority in enough provinces. Each of the Sunni-dominated provinces contains Shiite and Kurdish communities, and there is no requirement in the law for a minimum turnout.
If voters reject the constitution, parliament will be dissolved and elections held by Dec. 15 to form a new one. The new parliament then starts drafting a new constitution.
Federalism has become the most contentious issue, underscoring the vastly different experience of the three major communities during the Saddam era.
Sunnis, who profited as a community under Saddam's centralized regime, fear federalism will lead to the dismemberment of the country and make Iraq vulnerable to threats by stronger neighbors like Shiite-dominated Iran, with whom the Shiite parties maintain close links but which fought a 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
Shiites and Kurds bitterly recall decades of oppression at the hands of Saddam and believe federalism is the best way to prevent a new dictator.
However, the Shiite community is also divided, and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shares Sunni objections to federalism and other parts of the draft. He may well join forces with the Sunnis in the referendum. Al-Sadr's followers have joined Sunni hard-liners in recent protests against the constitution.
Al-Sadr's potential role was thrown into sharp focus Wednesday when clashes broke out between his followers and those of the biggest Shiite party after a brawl in front of his office in Najaf left four dead and the building in flames.
Al-Sadr's followers blamed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which holds key posts in the government and on the constitutional committee. Fighting occurred in major Shiite cities including Basra, Karbala, Amarah, Kut, Samawah and Nasiriyah.
On Thursday, however, al-Sadr called on his followers to end the clashes in the interest of Shiite unity — a call generally heeded although three rockets were fired shortly before midnight at the SCIRI office in Karbala.
In calling for calm, al-Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces last year, urged "all believers to spare the blood of the Muslims and to return to their homes."
"I will not forget this attack on the office ... but Iraq is passing through a critical and difficult period that requires unity," he told reporters in his home in Najaf.
He demanded that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of SCIRI, condemn "what his followers have done."
"I urge the believers not to attack innocent civilians and not to fall for American plots that aim to divide us," al-Sadr said. "We are passing through a critical period and a political process."
SCIRI denied any role in the attack on al-Sadr's office and issued a statement urging an end to the bloodshed — also calling it "a plot that targets our unity."