Iraqi Kurds have rejected suggestions the country should be proclaimed an Islamic state in the new constitution and refused to compromise on the incorporation of oil-rich Kirkuk into their autonomous northern region.

Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan, assured Kurdish MPs that he would insist on federalism and retaining the Kurdish Peshmerga militia when he meets Iraqi leaders to discuss the constitution on Sunday in Baghdad.

Identity

"We will not accept that Iraq's identity is Islamic," Barzani told the autonomous Kurdistan parliament in Arbil on Saturday. He also rejected suggestions that Iraq be termed an Arab nation.

Iraqi Kurds want a constitution
that ensures their autonomy

"Let Arab Iraq be part of the Arab nation - we are not," the Kurdish leader said.

"This is a golden chance for Kurds and Kurdistan - if we don't do what is important for Kurdistan, there will be no second chance. We will not make our final decision in Baghdad, the Kurdish parliament will decide," he said.

Autonomy demands

Iraqi Kurds, who number about 4.5 million, want a constitution that will guarantee federalism and preserve their region's
autonomy.

Barzani also insisted his region would retain the Peshmerga, despite calls by Baghdad that they be incorporated into the national army.

Eight Iraqis were killed in
attacks on Saturday

The emergency meeting of the Kurdish parliament had prompted a two-day postponement of the national conference to break the constitutional deadlock.

The deadlock revolves around federalism, the official languages of the new Iraq, the relation between religion and state, the rights of women and the future of Kirkuk.

"There are many things which need more discussion and dialogue," said the regional parliament's speaker, Adnan Mufti, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Kirkuk

Mufti said the Kurds would be ready to endorse the charter "if everyone thinks like us - that the new constitution should be for all Iraqis".

One potential stumbling block could be the future status of oil-rich Kirkuk, which Kurds want incorporated into their territory.

During the 1980s, former president Saddam Hussein pursued a policy of "Arabisation" in Kirkuk, driving out thousands of Kurds and replacing them with Arabs to consolidate his hold over the city.

Kurds want Kirkuk included in
their territory

Kurds are determined to make good on proposals laid out in the country's interim law, signed in March 2004, that this policy be reversed and Kurds returned to the city.

"We believe the new constitution must uphold [the interim agreements made over Kirkuk] and nothing less - we want normalisation," Mufti said.

The national conference is due to report back by 12 August, and Iraqi leaders have insisted they are on track to complete a final draft for debate by parliament by 15 August ahead of a referendum in mid-October.

The referendum will be followed by nationwide elections in December.

More violence

Meanwhile, about 1000 US marines and Iraqi soldiers combed the areas of Haditha, Haqliniyah and Barwanah in western Iraq, where 40 US soldiers were killed by Iraqi fighters in the past fortnight.

In other violence on Saturday, a British soldier was injured in an attack in the southern city of Basra, London said.

Eight Iraqis were killed and 30 wounded in attacks in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland to the north of the capital.

Also, the US military said one soldier died on Thursday in Mosul.