The Iraqi parliament delayed a session Monday on whether to approve a new constitution hours before a deadline as faction leaders failed in last-minute talks to agree on a federated state and other divisive issues.
The two-hour delay came after some Iraqi politicians suggested that parliament should extend the deadline for approving the charter while others said it could be approved over Sunni objections as last-minute talks failed to produce agreement on a federated state and other divisive issues.
The 275-member National Assembly had been scheduled to convene at 6 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT) to consider the draft but moments ahead of the time, the meeting room in the heavily guarded Green Zone was absent of legislators.
Shiite member Mohammed Baqir al-Bahadli said members had been advised that the new starting time was 8 p.m.
Kurdish parliament member Mahmoud Othman said meetings were still under way on the outstanding issues and so far “no final agreements have been reached.”
Tariq al-Hashimi, the general secretary of Iraq’s biggest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic party, told Al-Jazeera television that the minority’s demands were not the only obstacles blocking progress.
Instead, he said Shiites and Kurds also had “points of disagreement” and it might be better to delay a decision. He didn’t elaborate.
Al-Hashimi said his party did not believe in the “sanctity” of the interim constitution which mandated Monday as the deadline for the constitution to be approved by parliament.
An extension of Monday’s deadline would require approval of two-thirds of parliament and the president and his two deputies. U.S. officials have pressured Iraqis to stick to Monday’s deadline.
The Iraqis have been under strong pressure from the United States to complete the charter on time and keep on track a political process the Americans hope will lure Sunnis away from the insurgency so U.S. and other foreign troops can begin to go home next year.
Iraqi leaders had insisted the draft constitution would be presented to parliament on Monday.
“It will be today. It will be a historic day in the history of Iraq,” Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie told CNN just over an hour before the delay was announced.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba also said the document would be presented on time.
“Every group knows what they will lose if they don’t reach an agreement,” Kubba told state-run Iraqiya television.
Some Shiite and Kurdish leaders had signaled they were prepared to submit the draft to parliament Monday evening _ even if they had to do so over Sunni Arab objections.
But that risked a backlash among Sunni Arabs, who form the core of the insurgency, which could undermine the American goal of using the constitution to lure away Sunnis from the insurgency.
With stakes so high, public positions among the factions were changing by the hour.
A lawmaker from the biggest Shiite party, Jalaladin al-Shagir, said political leaders were leaning toward extending the deadline for up to a month.
Another option expressed was to ignore Sunni objections, submit the document to parliament as planned and try to win over the Sunni public before an Oct. 15 referendum on the charter.
“I personally support postponing” parliamentary approval until Sept. 15, Sunni Arab legislator Haseeb Aref said. “I don’t expect them to hand the draft today because there is no unanimity.”
Sunni Arabs have asked that the issue of federalism be put off until next year. Shiites and Kurds, the two other major groups in the country, are pushing for autonomous regions in the southern and northern parts of Iraq, but Sunnis fear the proposal could split Iraq.
Sunnis also oppose other proposals endorsed by the Shiites and Kurds, including proposals for a special status for the Shiite clerical leadership and a formula for distributing oil wealth and dual citizenship.
But Shiites and Kurds dominate the 275-member National Assembly _ as well as the constitutional committee _ and could ram through the charter over Sunni Arab objects. Other options include amending the interim constitution to extend the deadline or dissolving parliament.
Sunnis _ who boycotted the Jan. 30 vote for an interim parliament _ could defeat the constitution in the national referendum. If two-thirds of the voters in three provinces vote against the constitution, it would be defeated. Sunni Arabs form the majority in at least four provinces.
Sunni clerics have urged followers to vote against any constitution that could lead to the breakup of the country
American officials applied pressure to resolve differences on that and other issues before Monday’s deadline _ despite the risks of alienating the Sunnis.
“The Iraqis tell me that they can finish it and they will finish it tomorrow,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Sunday in a televised interview.
Khalilzad said “a lot of American blood and American treasure has been spent here” _ a point that he had made “abundantly clear to my Iraqi interlocutors.”
Violence continued Monday. In Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed three people in separate shootings, including a municipal council member and his driver, police said Monday. Four others were wounded.
Police said gunmen killed three Iraqi soldiers and wounded three others at a checkpoint in Buhriz, 35 miles north of Baghdad.
In west Baghdad, an insurgent ambush killed one Iraqi soldier and injured another, police Capt. Talib Thamir said. A mortar struck the rear courtyard of the Interior Ministry on Monday, wounding five troops and three civilians, police Lt. Col. Fouad Assad said.
In Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the body of a government food program worker was found, police said. In the nearby village of Khirnabat, police said Monday a roadside bomb had killed one civilian the day before.