U.S. Weighs Military Transfer; 7 Marines Are Killed in Iraq

The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 2 – As Iraqi leaders on Monday reaffirmed their decision to finish writing the country’s constitution by the middle of the month, the American ambassador here publicly outlined the process for a gradual American troop withdrawal. And today, the American military said seven more American troops were killed in Iraq.

Speaking in his first news conference here, the new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Monday that the American military would hand over control of specific areas to Iraqi forces and “withdraw its own units from these areas.” He declined to say which Iraqi cities American soldiers would leave first but said he had formed a committee with Iraqi leaders to draw up a detailed withdrawal plan.

“After this transfer occurs in more and more areas, there will be a smaller need for coalition forces, and elements of the multinational forces will leave Iraq,” the ambassador said. Iraqi forces have been given sole control over very few areas of the country. A recent report prepared by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld concluded that only a small percentage of Iraqi military units were capable of fighting on their own.

Mr. Khalilzad’s remarks were a public reminder to Iraqis that the Bush administration is moving ahead with plans to reduce the number of foreign troops here. And they were the latest demonstration of the highly visible role that he has played in the weeks since his arrival. Before then, Mr. Khalilzad was the ambassador to Afghanistan, where he was deeply engaged in the affairs of the country. He seems to be bringing that philosophy to Iraq as well, departing from American officials’ recent custom of staying in the background while Iraqis increasingly take the lead.

He played an active part in pushing Iraqi leaders toward their decision on Sunday to stick to an Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a new constitution, urging them to set aside any issues that could not be resolved by that date.

The Bush administration has been keen to keep the democratic process here on track, as a means to drain anger from the insurgency and also to help set the conditions for an American troop draw-down.

Sectarian violence continued to punctuate the country’s political tensions.

Today, an American military spokesman, Staff Sgt. Don Dees, said in a telephone interview that seven American marines were killed on Monday, six of them during operations in the restive Al Anbar province west of Baghdad and one in a suicide car bomb attack in the town of Hit. Also on Monday, eleven bodies were found in southwest Baghdad, most shot but two beheaded. Their identities were not immediately clear, though the men were of varying ages and many had the long beards worn by conservative Muslims. One weeping relative of a victim was photographed holding the decapitated head of a man as it lay on the back of a flatbed truck, according to Reuters.

An Interior Ministry official, Brig. Abdul Salam Abdul Latif, was killed and two of his guards wounded when gunmen attacked his car on a highway in eastern Baghdad, the ministry said. About 40 miles south of Kirkuk, an Iraqi soldier was killed and six others were wounded by a roadside bomb.

In another appearance on Monday, Mr. Khalilzad urged the members of the constitutional drafting committee to set aside their differences and strike a deal. “I encourage them to move forward in a spirit of compromise, flexibility and good will,” he said in a speech before Iraq’s National Assembly.

Under a framework agreed to by Iraqis last year, the constitution will be put to a vote of the National Assembly, followed by a nationwide referendum on Oct. 15. Nationwide elections to elect a new National Assembly to a full term are scheduled for Dec. 15.

The danger, expressed by some Iraqi leaders, is that there is not enough time until Aug. 15 for the constitutional committee to resolve several contentious issues that are central to Iraq’s identity. A flawed constitution, they say, could open the door to civil war.

Some of the trickiest issues involve the future of the Kurds, who predominate in the mountains of northern Iraq. The Kurds have enjoyed a wide degree of autonomy since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and they are eager to preserve — and even expand — their prerogatives against what they view as a potentially predatory central government.

On Monday, Kurdish leaders said they were prepared to withdraw their support of an Iraqi charter if it does not satisfy their concerns on a range of difficult issues, including expanding the geographic breadth of their autonomy and reversing years of expulsions and ethnic killings in areas of Iraq that were formerly Kurdish.

“If the constitution does not respect the basic rights of the Kurdish people in Iraq, the Kurdish region will vote against the referendum,” said Barham Salih, a senior Kurdish leader and Iraq’s planning minister.

It is not an idle threat. Under the rules set up last year, the Iraqi constitution would fail if two-thirds of the voters in 3 of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it in October — and Kurds are a majority in exactly three provinces.

Among the other unresolved issues is the role of religion in public and political life. Some Shiite leaders want the country to be called the Iraqi Islamic Republic, and they want to designate Islam as the main source of the country’s legislation. Some Kurdish and other secular Iraqi leaders want to make sure that such language is not used to strip women and others of their basic rights.

It is such fundamental disagreements that prompted American diplomats to try to persuade the Iraqis to hold fast to the Aug. 15 deadline, even at the cost of leaving some of those big issues out of the constitution altogether.

But Mr. Salih, the Kurdish leader, suggested that some of those disagreements may be too large to paper over.

Without acceptance of the Kurds’ basic demands, “there will be no agreement,” he said. “You cannot camouflage it.”

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