The U.S. ambassador suggested Tuesday there may be further changes to the draft constitution in order to win Sunni Arab approval, saying he believed a ”final, final draft” had not yet been presented.
Meanwhile, U.S. F-16s launched airstrikes near the Syrian border, destroying three houses and killing a ”known terrorist,” the U.S. military said. Iraqi authorities said fighting had broken out in the area between a tribe that supports foreign fighters and another that backs the government.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spoke two days after Shiite and Kurdish negotiators bypassed Sunni Arab negotiators and finished the draft, despite Sunni objections to federalism, references to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and the country’s identification as an Islamic but not Arab state.
”I believe that a final, final draft has not yet been, or the edits have not been, presented yet, so that is something that Iraqis will have to talk to each other and decide for themselves,” Khalilzad told reporters.
The law says the version signed off on by parliament Sunday cannot be amended. But Khalilzad said the door could be open for changes declared as ”edits” to the approved text. There was no official comment from the Shiite parliamentary leadership on whether it shared that opinion.
However, influential Shiite lawmaker Khaled al-Attiyah, a member of the constitution drafting committee, insisted that ”no changes are allowed to be made to the constitution” except for ”minor edits for the language.”
Shiite leaders consider some of the Sunni objections — especially on federalism and references to the Baath Party — as matters of principle.
An Arab League official in Cairo, meanwhile, said Arab diplomats were urging the Iraqis to amend the constitution to strengthen references to the country’s role in the Arab world.
Iraqi Sunni Arabs cited the phrase among reasons they rejected the draft, . Although the law forbids further changes in the draft, the stakes are so high that Iraqis may overlook legalisms in a bid for unity. A Sunni constitution negotiator urged all opponents of the constitution, including radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to join a national front against the charter.
Khalilzad spoke alongside prominent Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi, who urged Sunnis to reject the constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum as it stands. He also denounced the Shiite-led Interior Ministry for allegedly murdering Sunnis.
It was unclear if negotiations among the factions were actually under way. But the presence of Khalilzad with a respected Sunni figure was a clear sign the Bush administration has not given up on its campaign to win Sunni endorsement before the referendum.
”With regards to the constitution, as I said before, if Iraqis among themselves, in the assembly and those from outside, decide to make some adjustments compared to the draft that was presented three, four days ago, it’s entirely up to them,” Khalilzad said.
The airstrikes, which included 500-pound GBU-12 guided bombs, began about 6:20 a.m. in a cluster of towns near Qaim along the Syrian border 200 miles northwest of Baghdad.
A U.S. statement made no mention of tribal fighting but said four bombs were used to destroy a house occupied by ”terrorists” outside the town of Husaybah. Two more bombs destroyed a second house in Husaybah, occupied by Abu Islam, described as ”a known terrorist,” the statement added.
”Islam and several other suspected terrorists were killed in that attack,” the statement said. Several of Islam’s associates fled his house in Husaybah for the nearby town of Karabilah, the statement said, citing intelligence reports.
”Around 8:30 a.m., a strike was conducted on the house in Karabilah using two precision-guided bombs,” the statement said. ”Several terrorists were killed in the strike but exact numbers are not known.”
Iraqi officials said 45 people had been killed in the fighting between the pro-government Bumahl tribe and the pro-insurgent Karabilah tribe, including some in the airstrikes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The area is among the most dangerous in the country, and access is difficult.
Elsewhere, the U.S. military said an Army helicopter made a forced landing late Monday under hostile fire near the northern city of Tal Afar, and one soldier was killed and another injured.
U.S. Navy F-18 jets were flying close air support in the Tal Afar area, the military’s regional command said. It was unclear if that included airstrikes.
The outcome of the border clashes could affect the ease with which foreign fighters can slip into the country from Syria. Tensions have been rising over the presence of foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida, and fighting has flared in the area sporadically for months, U.S. officials have said.
One of the Sunni objections to the draft was that it identified Iraq as an ”Islamic” but not Arab country — a concession to the non-Arab Kurds. But many Sunnis felt the change threatened the nation’s ties to the Arab world and lumped Iraqis together with non-Arab, Shiite-dominated Iran.
Concern about the constitution’s impact on Iraq’s identity and role in the Arab world was shared by Iraq’s Arab neighbors.
In Cairo, an aide to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said officials were trying to contact Iraqi authorities ”to ensure that the Arabism of Iraq is stressed in the Iraqi constitution that will be put to a referendum.”
”We think that the phrasing that had been reached earlier did not satisfy the Arab world and has caused grave worries,” said the aide, Hisham Youssef, adding that the wording ”weakened (Iraq’s) belonging to the Arab world.”
Youssef said there were ”contacts and we’re hoping for the best.”
In Baghdad, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni negotiator, said rumored plans to add a reference to Iraq’s Arab League membership would not be enough to overcome Sunni objections.
He said the Sunnis were demanding ”clear wording saying that Iraq is part of the Arab nation” but the main sticking point ”is federalism,” which they fear would lead to the breakup of the country.
Al-Mutlaq called on all Iraqi sects and ethnic groups to set aside their differences ”to form an anti-constitution front.”
On Tuesday, hundreds of Sunnis rallied three miles north of Ramadi to denounce the proposed constitution.
Protesters carried portraits of former dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Sadr, who also opposes the draft, along with banners reading ”No to federalism, no to dividing Iraq.”
Sunni Arabs form about 20 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people but are the majority in four of the 18 provinces. Under elections rules, a ”no” vote by a two-thirds majority in any three provinces would defeat the referendum.
In other developments Tuesday:
— Gunmen shot and killed two Iraqi police colonels in separate attacks in Baghdad and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, authorities said.
— A suicide car bomber struck a police patrol in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing two officers, a spokesman said.