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Iraq constitution talks to resume
Updated: 2005-08-17 19:00

Iraqi politicians restart troubled talks on drafting a constitution on Wednesday with pressure on Sunni Arabs to agree to a heavily federated state.

Weeks of talks ended in deadlock on Monday, the deadline for a deal, and parliament gave leaders of rival sectarian and ethnic groups a further week to settle their differences.

If not, the assembly will face dissolution and the prospect of new elections in an atmosphere poisoned by a bloody insurgency that has spawned violent sectarian and ethnic strife.

"It's basically a marathon of talks today between the main political blocs," a spokesman at President Jalal Talabani's office said.

He said Talabani would chair a meeting of the main Kurdish and Shi'ite groups. Some informal talks were held on Tuesday.

U.S. officials, pressing for a deal in time for an October referendum, hope a constitution will undermine the revolt among the Sunni Arab minority and help President George W. Bush make the politically popular move of bringing troops home.

Sunni Arabs, reeling from losing the dominant position they held under ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, are mainly fighting Shi'ite and Kurdish demands for federalism.

Both Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a devout Shi'ite, and Talabani, a veteran Kurdish politician, spoke publicly on Tuesday of their faith in a federal state. Talabani spoke with U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad at his side.

"In my view, federalism is already a fact on the ground (for Kurds) but others in other provinces should have the same right," Jaafari told reporters, adding that the extra week would be enough to clinch a deal.


Khalilzad said on Tuesday there was a plan to print one text which would make clear which clauses had been agreed and those still in dispute, something not done thus far.

"At one point I thought we had agreed on an issue but then I saw that it wasn't agreed on a text I was looking at," he said, describing the difficulty of pinning down one working document.

New demands have appeared. Some old ones have resurfaced.

Yonadem Kanna, a Christian member of the drafting committee, said Kurds were now pushing harder for the constitution to enshrine the right to self-determination, though they faced opposition from both Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs.

Last week Shi'ites made a dramatic call for an autonomous region across mainly Shi'ite southern Iraq, like the Kurdish zone in the north, just five days before Monday's deadline.

Sunnis said they were under pressure on federalism.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading Arab nationalist member of the 17-member drafting panel, said Sunnis were resisting a Kurdish move to avoid defining the borders of their autonomous region.

"We don't mind the Kurdish region but with the same borders as before the war in 2003. We want to fix everything now, but they don't want to define it, so maybe they can expand in the future. Then there will be a war," he said.

Kurds can cite the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), agreed last year, which says the issue of Kirkuk, a disputed city which they want to be included in their region eventually, should be left until later.

Iraq's oil wealth is located near Basra in the south and Kirkuk in the north, potentially impoverishing Sunnis if federal regions have wide control over resources on their territory.

Mutlak said the Kurds' and Shi'ites' idea of how easily a group of provinces could form their own region was too loose.

"The setting of any formal 'region' should be a national decision, not anyone's individual choice," he said.

Kanna said there was a slight sign of compromise among some Islamist Sunni Arabs who have agreed to the idea of single provinces operating as federal regions, but not three or more as the language of the TAL allows.

Among Shi'ites, supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were prepared to accept this, Kanna said, but the ruling Shi'ite blocs insist on the TAL's vision of at least three provinces.

"The Sunni Arabs will never agree. It is against the culture of Iraq as they knew it before," he said.

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