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Iraq constitution talks revive old enmities

Iraq’s political leaders have till next Monday to thrash out a new constitution that the United States-led coalition considers critical to defeating the country’s escalating insurgency.

But leaders of Iraq’s different communities have shown little sign of compromise over key questions like the role of Islam and federalism in the nation’s future, despite agreement on other issues.

Leaders of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities conferred for four hours Tuesday night hoping to overcome their differences and produce a charter.

The meeting failed to narrow differences, but negotiators have vowed to strive towards the deadline. They agreed "to hold daily meetings until all points of disagreement are settled by consensus," a statement from Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s office said.

The Premier himself was unable to attend, because of "security concerns" over his venturing a couple of miles (kilometres) from the fortified Green Zone that houses the government to the venue - President Jalal Talabani’s residence.

Sunni negotiators are even defying the insurgents' call to boycott the talks so as to lobby hard against a federal state for Kurds

Ominously, the leaders’ meeting was delayed from Monday after Baghdad was smothered by a massive sandstorm. Traffic came to a virtual standstill and the capital’s main airport was also shut with no flights taking off. Those who dared step out wore masks or covered their mouths with cloth to keep the dust out.

According to legislators, at least 18 key items remain to be settled, including women’s rights, the country’s official languages and the future of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

But federalism is a particularly contentious issue along with the distribution of Iraq’s substantial oil wealth. At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, presidential spokesman Kamran Qaradaghi told reporters the latest talks would focus these issues as well as elections law.

The Kurds are demanding that Iraq be transformed into a federal state so they can continue to run their autonomous mini-state in the north. But Sunni Arabs oppose federalism because they fear the Kurds want to secede and dismember Iraq.

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has vowed his people will never back down from their demands for a federal state despite problems this may create in efforts to draft a new constitution.

On the other hand, even ignoring threats from the largely Sunni-driven resistance to boycott the talks, Sunni negotiators are lobbying hard against the proposed federal state which would grant regional autonomy to Kurds in the north and Shias in the south.

Sunnis make up 20 percent of Iraq’s population. They hold only 17 seats of the 275-member parliament but are expected to take a bigger role in December elections - Many of them boycotted the January vote.

One prominent Sunni Arab on the constitutional committee, Saleh al-Mutlaq, has suggested that federalism be decided by the parliament to be elected in December.

"We will not accept federalism in these circumstances," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press. He warned that if Kurdish demands are accepted, "they will have grave consequences" for the future of Iraq. He did not elaborate.

President Talabani, who is also a Kurd, has suggested there was no problem with the issue of federalism in the north, where his people have enjoyed a de facto state under US military protection since 1991, Reuters reported.

But he said calls for federalism in the Shiite south, home to the country’s biggest oil reserves, were a matter for dispute.

Some prominent secular Shiites, including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a powerful figure in the oil sector, are pushing for it.

Ahmad Chalabi, a deputy prime minister and secular Shia, has championed self-rule for the oil-rich south under a federal system. Other Shias are uneasy, fearing it could lead to the country’s break-up.

Many Kurds further fear giving up hard-won ground and settling for something less than they have after the drafting of the constitution.

Many Kurds fear giving up hard-won ground and settling for less than they have

The Kurds carved three semi-independent provinces out of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, sealing it off from the rest of the country under cover of a no-fly zone enforced on Saddam Hussein’s air force by US and British warplanes.

And on Sunday Kurdish leader Barzani rejected an Islamic and Arabic identity for Iraq under the new constitution.

Mahmud Othman, a member of the constitutional drafting committee, told AFP, adding that there was "great US and British pressure" to meet the August 15 dateline. "We are in a race against the clock," he said.

Washington at first kept a low profile and did not want to be seen as a puppeteer in what was supposed to be a showcase for Iraqi sovereignty, press reports said.

But as talks stalled and the deadline loomed, raising the possibility of a six-month delay and lost momentum, US diplomats intervened to nudge participants towards compromise.

Last Sunday the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, went further by publicly backing the secular and religious moderates, saying "The United States believes strongly that the Iraqi constitution should provide equal rights before the law for all Iraqis regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sect."

On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said a new constitution was vital in helping persuade Iraqis "the new Iraq is worth fighting for." Amid the zero-sum calculations fuelling their negotiations, the leaders of Iraq’s communities would agree.

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