The pro-government Shia- and Kurdish-backed groups are likely to submit the constitution document to the parliament later this week despite Sunni opposition.

As part of a growing campaign against a charter that Sunni Arabs argue devolves too much power to the regions, Sunni leaders held strident news conferences in Baghdad while demonstrations went on elsewhere on Wednesday.
   
"We reject federalism in the central and southern regions. We reject it because it has no basis other than sectarianism," Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of an umbrella group called the National Conference for the Sunni People of Iraq, told reporters.
   
"Every Iraqi must stand in the way of all those who want to deepen sectarianism in Iraq," he said. 

Dulaimi, in a move likely to entrench the standoff between Sunnis on the one side and Shia and Kurds on the other, also called for prisoners to be freed.

President Jalal Talabani (L) hopes
to forge consensus

Most of the more than 10,000 detainees in US-run facilities in Iraq are Sunnis.
  
"Iraq is going through a crisis that needs all to raise their voice to release prisoners before the elections so they can participate in the vote," he said, clearly hoping for more Sunni engagement than was shown in January's boycotted election.

Mixed rejection 
   
In Hawija, north of Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqis marched against the constitution, saying it had been presented to parliament without consensus. Other small rallies were held in Baghdad and other cities. 

Sunni demonstrators showed support to their leaders in rejecting the constitution.

Supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a young Shia cleric who also strongly opposes the constitution, joined the demonstrations in Hawija. 

Another revered Iraqi Shia authority voiced strong opposition to the suggested Iraqi constitution, saying it serves the "occupation's interests".

"There is nothing called Sunnis wanting the constitution and Shia do not" Shaikh Hadi al-Khalisi told Aljazeera.net.

The cleric also slammed media reports which presents the situation as a sectarian conflict.

"Presenting the case in this way is a foreign plot to divide the nation. Let us put it in other words: Followers of the occupation and the government of the occupation want the constitution, and Iraqi nationalists including Shia and Sunni do not want it." 

Unsolved issues

Sunni members of the constitutional drafting committee oppose several parts of the document, which was handed to parliament on Monday.

Their opposition forced parliament to delay a vote for at least three days to give Shia and Kurdish negotiators time to win over the Sunnis.
 

"Iraq's new constitution must be for all its people and should meet the aspirations of Sunni Arabs".

Jalal Talabani,
Iraqi president

The Sunni objections include federalism, references to Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party and the description of Iraq as an Islamic, but not Arab, country.

Parliament speaker al-Hassani, a Sunni Arab, said discussions over the draft will continue until Thursday, adding that Sunnis are not against the principle of federalism but "they prefer that its approval and adoption come in stages".

Talabani, who is Kurdish, said there is unanimity among all groups that the constitution should exclude Baath Party members who committed crimes against the people from government positions and politics.

"Its measures should not include simple Baathists who belonged to the Baath for job necessities," Talabani said in a statement released by his office.

Call for US withdrawal

Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, spokesman for the major Sunni clerical organisation, the Association of Muslim Scholars, reiterated  that any political process under US occupation "would not serve the interests of Iraq".

 

Al-Kubaisi asked the US to draw
a timetable for exiting Iraq 

"This week's constitutional process has paved the way to the partition of Iraq and wiping out its identity, and it has failed to gain a national acceptance," al-Kubaisi said.

 

"We call upon the United States to end its arrogance and not impose useless political processes on the Iraqi people, and to put a timetable for its withdrawal from Iraq."
    
Fruitless efforts

President Jalal Talabani held further talks with leaders from the three major communities on Wednesday, but he looked unlikely to be able to forge a consensus before Thursday's parliamentary meeting, when the constitution will be voted on. 
  
Iraq's new constitution must be for all its people and should meet the aspirations of Sunni Arabs, Talabani said on Wednesday.

Speaking after a meeting with parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani, Talabani said the country's stability cannot be achieved without consensus.

"The constitution will be to serve everybody and not only one community of the Iraqi society," Talabani said.

"We hope that all the pending disagreements be solved in what guarantees consensus between the three (main) communities in Iraq and in what guarantees the satisfaction and approval of our Sunni brothers in this important matter."

Kurdish approval

The autonomous Kurdistan parliament approved the charter on Wednesday, saying it was a "big step" for the Kurds.

Kurdish MPs approved the charter 
"Although the draft is not up to our expectations, it represents a big step for us in this period," speaker Adnan al-Mufti said in his address to the Kurdish parliament in the northern city of Arbil.

The approval from Iraqi Kurdistan is expected to pave the way for Iraq's 275-member parliament to pass the draft Thursday as Kurds and the majority Shia together hold about 210 seats in the national assembly.

Iraq's interim rules stipulate that the draft can be passed by a simple majority in parliament.

Kurdish leaders were initially demanding the right to self-determination, a federal structure for Iraq and the inclusion of oil-rich Kirkuk in their autonomous northern region.

But intense US pressure forced them to climb down and agree to the draft along with the pro-government Shia.