Iraqi legislators granted a one-week extension to draft the country's post-Saddam Hussein constitution after leaders missed a midnight Monday deadline to submit it to parliament despite intense US pressure to wrap up the charter on time.
 
"This is a one-time extension ... if Iraq misses the next deadline, we have to dissolve the national assembly, the government will collapse and fresh elections will have to be held," Kurdish panelist Munther al-Fadhal said.

The main sticking points in drafting the constitution were the role of Islam, federalism and the distribution of national oil wealth.

Al-Fadhal said the present interim law stipulated that it could be amended only once to seek an extension for drafting the charter, which is due to be put to a referendum in mid-October followed by new elections by the end of the year.

Dramatic events

Exhausted negotiators were taking stock of Monday's events and said there would be no talks on Tuesday, despite the new 22 August deadline.
 
"Nothing will happen today," Kurdish constitution committee member Mahmud Othman said.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad
blamed failure on a sandstorm 

"Everyone is tired after the last week's hectic activities. It is like a holiday today," Othman said, adding that a scheduled assembly meeting on Tuesday was delayed.

Despite the missed deadline, US leaders who had expected an agreement until the last minute hailed the faltering process as "democracy at work".

"I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue," US President George Bush said.

"Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate,
negotiation and compromise," he said in a statement.

US upbeat

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also optimistic about the work of Iraq's Shias, Kurds and Sunnis to formulate a constitution 28 months after US-led forces ousted Saddam.

Condoleezza Rice: We are 
witnessing democracy at work  

Rice said the request for a seven-day extension in the deadline was "in full accordance" with the interim law adopted to end the US occupation.

"We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq," she said.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad blamed the failure on a Baghdad sandstorm that he said had led to the loss of three negotiating days.

"I have no doubt that Iraq will have a good draft constitution completed in the coming days," he said. 

Iraqis cautious

Meanwhile, an Iraqi journalist and author, Nazar al-Samarrai, has told Aljazeera that despite the Iraqi constitution draft being drawn up for Iraqis, its content is unclear.

All that is known, al-Samarrai added, is that "an American had invented it in line with a US political school of thought".

The meeting at the Iraqi national assembly on Tuesday, attended by the US ambassador, emphasised the US presence in the process of drafting an Iraqi constitution.
 
"The meeting also reaffirmed that the differences dividing parliamentary blocks and political parties are much more serious than the apparent optimism that prevailed."

That, he said was particularly noticeable in Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani's statement about the draft constitution that should have been submitted on Sunday 14 August. Al-Samarrai did not elaborate.
 

Kurdish leaders are keen on
federalism for Iraq

Asked why US and Iraqi statements appeared too optimistic, he said: "This optimism is unjustified and baseless, since Talabani wanted to create an atmosphere of optimism."

Issues of contention are enormous, he said. The relationship between religion and the state is one of them.

In this respect, US president George Bush has asserted his presence when he said he wanted an explicit representation of women, whatever the relationship between religion and the state.

"This means Bush had meant to dictate to the Iraqis a state of mind he sees compatible with his own political moods and with the US values, irrespective of Iraqi conventions, customs and traditions. These are US dictates they wanted to impose on the Iraqi constitution."

The second issue, al-Samarrai continued, is federalism of which vast differences have been noted.

"Let's look at it paradoxically. Normally, federal systems are given by larger social groups to minorities. But when Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim called for federalism, he said it was needed by the majority in nine governorates. Is this a new brand of federalism?" al-Samarrai asked.

Draft

One Shia said he was optimistic an agreement would be reached, but indicated a draft of the constitution might be presented without the consent of all parties.

"I think we'll be able to overcome the differences, I hope we'll do it before the next deadline, during this week," Jawad al-Maliki said.

"We are not seeking 100% consensus - the most important thing is that the people of Iraq accept in a referendum"

Jawad al-Maliki,
Shia legislator

"We are not seeking 100% consensus - the most important thing is that the people of Iraq accept in a referendum."

A number of differences remain, but in the days leading to Monday's deadline, a broad agreement had seemingly emerged between the Kurds and Shias who both favour a federal structure for Iraq.

The once-dominant Sunni Arabs, however, fear a federalism with regionally autonomous governments could leave them without a share of the country's vast oil reserves, which lie largely in the Kurdish zone of the north and the Shia south.

Oil sharing

An initial agreement to share the oil revenues has been agreed, but the mechanism to distribute it remains to be formulated.

Kurdish MPs blamed Sunni Arabs for the missed deadline.

"The Sunni Arabs are way apart on the issue of federalism... I doubt if they would come on board even during the next one week," Othman said.

"But next time, I think the MPs will approve the draft without the Sunnis," he added. 

"Politics was invented to improve life, not to make it worse, but in Iraq this truth has been altered" 

Al-Mashriq,
daily newspaper

In a special session on Monday night, the  275-member parliament voted to amend the present interim law with a fresh deadline of 22 August, side-stepping the need to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections.

"The national assembly should draft the permanent constitution within a period ending by 22 August," parliament speaker Hajim al-Hasani said.

Basic amenities

Although the missed deadline was on the front pages of most newspapers, editorials criticised the fledgling administration for ignoring basic amenities in the war-torn country, where power cuts and water shortages are recurring problems.

"Why talk about progress in the political process when the quality of life is deteriorating at all levels?" said Al-Mashriq, a daily close to the Kurdish community.
 
"Politics was invented to improve life, not to make it worse, but in Iraq this truth has been altered."