Iraq

Deadlock, doubts as Iraq ticks down to deadline

By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Hours from a midnight deadline that could plunge Iraq's fledgling political system into crisis, there was no sign of an end to deadlock on Monday over a new constitution and profound doubt over where that would lead.

Parliament was summoned for another special evening session at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) to hear proposals from party leaders and legislators who have been working on a draft in committee. But as with a similar meeting a week ago, the outcome was unclear.

U.S. diplomats have been pushing hard for a deal to be done.

A spokesman for the ruling coalition of Shi'ite Islamists and Kurds indicated that parliament, dominated by those groups, was now likely to force through a draft even if other groups dissented, and so submit it to a planned October referendum.

A further extension of the deadline by a week was possible, Laith Kubba said, as was the parliamentary majority voting through a draft that did not have consensus. A third option was dissolving parliament and a new election, he added.

"But nobody expects that this (dissolution) is going to happen," Kubba told CNN. "Most likely there will be a draft ... and it would be left for the nation to have its say on it."

One parliamentary group, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, threatened to quit the assembly if it disliked any deal; negotiators from the once dominant Sunni minority, who have been mobilising voters after shunning January's parliamentary poll, also warned of popular backlash that could sink any new charter.

"Every party is sticking to its position. The Sunnis are still rejecting federalism," said negotiator Hussein al-Falluji from the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. "If we don't agree today, I think we'll have another extension, of a week or 10 days. But we would prefer to dissolve the assembly."

DISCONTENT

With discontent spreading at the failure of the present government to curb violence or improve living standards, rival parties see a chance to win more votes than in January. If no constitution is agreed, however, any new parliament will have only interim powers, under a provisional, U.S.-sponsored law set last year. Its main job would again be drafting a constitution.

If the October referendum ratifies a constitution, voting in December will be for a full-term parliament with full powers.

But, though portrayed in Washington as a key test of Iraq's cohesion and ability to overcome the threat of civil war that looms behind the prospect of a U.S. troop withdrawal, there is little sign that even clinching a deal will ease the bloodshed.

Gunmen killed 10 people, including eight policemen, as they drove in a minivan north of Baghdad on Monday. Sunni Arab rebels have targeted the new, U.S.-trained forces.

In the capital and other cities, reports of daily sectarian murders and kidnappings keep people on edge. In the Sunni west, residents say, entire towns are virtually under the control of Islamist militants.

Negotiators from various groups said the ruling coalition was working with U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his team on a revised draft that Sunnis, Allawi and others might accept.

Key has been Sunni rejection of some Shi'ites' demands for a chance to set up an autonomous Shi'ite region in the oil-rich south at the same time as Kurds insist on retaining provisions on federalism that will guarantee their freedoms in the north.

Muddying the waters in the past two days has also been what secular Kurds have complained of as U.S. concessions to Islamist Shi'ites that could strengthen the role of Islam in the law.

VOTER MOBILISATION

"In the past two days, negotiations have been among the Kurdish and Shi'ite blocs," said Iyad al-Samarrai, a delegate from the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party. "We're expecting a general meeting later today to discuss their proposals."

Bahaa al-Araji, a leading Shi'ite Islamist on the drafting committee, accused secular Shi'ites led by Allawi and Kurdish leaders of a "conspiracy" to force new elections.

"The Shi'ites are preparing an alternative draft which they know they can push through parliament," Araji said, raising a prospect that Sunnis said could lead to an effective veto on the document at a referendum currently scheduled for mid-October.

Samarrai, whose party has been encouraging Sunnis in the troubled insurgent heartlands to go out and register to vote in spite of threats from hardline Sunni Islamist militants, said Sunnis would not necessarily campaign against such a deal.

If they do, however, they could defeat the charter by ensuring that two thirds of votes in three of Iraq's 18 provinces were cast against the constitution.

Raja Khozai, for Allawi's party, said: "If the constitution draft is approved by the Kurds and Shi'ites and it has elements we do not like, we will withdraw from the National Assembly and take a stand on the issue before the Iraqi people."

(Additional reporting by Santa Essa, Michael Georgy, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Hiba Moussa, Andrew Hammond and Luke Baker)

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