BAGHDAD: Iraq’s leaders were locked in frantic haggling over a new constitution last night as the deadline for presenting a draft to parliament expired. American diplomats offered their own proposed draft in a dramatic attempt to clinch a deal and avert a political crisis that would embarrass President George Bush.

Agreement should have been reached on Wednesday, but disputes over federalism and the role of Islam pitted the country’s ethnic and religious groups in an eleventh-hour showdown. Parliament was supposed to have two days to scrutinise the text before tomorrow’s deadline for approval but deputies waited in vain for negotiators to agree. President Jalal Talabani said one would emerge on Thursday, giving parliament just enough time to keep a self-imposed deadline and pave the way for a referendum on the constitution in October and elections in December. ‘We have gone forward,’ said the former Kurdish warlord. ‘God willing, we will finish the job tomorrow.’ However Sunni Arab representatives said that without ‘divine intervention’ the talks would fail.

In his weekly radio address, Bush kept up pressure on Iraq’s politicians to make a deal: ‘The establishment of a democratic constitution is a critical step on the path to Iraqi self-reliance.’ If parliament does not approve a draft constitution by tomorrow it must change the existing constitution to buy negotiators more time or dissolve and call fresh elections.

After keeping their distance, citing respect for Iraqi sovereignty, US diplomats snuffed out attempts by some participants to extend the deadline and last week presented their own proposals. The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, touted the US draft as a guide to compromise. Washington’s charter has not been published but it is believed to endorse autonomy for Kurds in the north and to defer a decision about autonomy for other regions until after the next elections.

All sides accept that Kurds will retain the self-rule they have enjoyed since the 1991 Gulf war. A conservative and powerful Shia cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has led calls for a Shia region in the south that would encompass most oil reserves and almost half the population of 26 million.

But Sunni Arabs and some Shias fear federalism will starve the central government of resources and carve Iraq into sectarian fiefdoms, resulting in its disintegration.

Sunnis, a dominant minority of 20 per cent until military dictator Saddam Hussein’s fall, fear being sandwiched in the barren centre between oil-rich Shias and Kurds.

There were reports of a deal to share oil revenue between the central government in Baghdad and the 18 provinces according to their population. Even if this is confirmed, Sunnis will remain hostile to any dilution of central authority.

A Sunni rejection of the constitution would dash hopes of weaning the group away from the insurgency and into nation-building. Al- Qaeda in Iraq has threatened to kill Sunnis who collaborate with the new constitution. A measure of the distance between negotiators was continued haggling over the country’s name. The largely secular Kurds favour the Federal Republic of Iraq, while some Shias want the Islamic Republic of Iraq.

One mooted compromise was the Islamic Federal Republic of Iraq, but the two words might cancel each other, leaving the Republic of Iraq, said Yonadam Kanna, one of the few Christian negotiators.

Secular and liberal groups voiced concern that Shias, long oppressed under Saddam but now dominant in government, would make Islam the main source of law, undermining women’s rights and imposing dress codes. —Dawn/The Observer News Service

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