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Deadline Arrives for Iraq Constitution

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today is the deadline for a draft constitution to be presented to Iraq's National Assembly. Members of parliament are due to meet, although even now it is not clear whether they've settled disputes over the constitution. Negotiations have been going into the final hours with the United States pressing Iraq's leaders to finish the job. In a moment, we'll hear how Iraqi politics affect American politics. We'll start with NPR's Phillip Reeves in Baghdad.

PHILLIP REEVES reporting:

Amid all the bewildering political maneuvering, one thing's clear. Many contentious issues are in play, but the biggest of all is about the minority Sunni Arabs and their deep misgivings over a federal Iraq. They're not so much worried about the Kurds in north who've had autonomy for 14 years as about the Shia of the south. The ultimate Sunni fear is that Iraq will break up with the bulk of the oil riches falling to the hands of the north and south.

Sunni-Arab sentiments matter, not least because the insurgents attacking US and Iraqi government forces day after day are dominated by Sunnis. Most Sunni Arabs didn't vote in the elections, so they only have a handful of seats in parliament. Since then, the US has been pressing hard for more Sunni political involvement.

Mr. HASAN AL-ATIYA(ph) (Iraqi Political Analyst): After alienating them, making them feel that they are persecuted, and now they're trying to bring them in in a very awkward way.

REEVES: That's Iraqi political analyst Hasan al-Atiya. He says there is a mechanism which gives Sunni Arabs some say of the constitution. If a constitution passes through parliament, it'll be put to a referendum this fall. If it's then rejected by two-thirds of the voters in at least three of Iraq's provinces, it'll be thrown out and there'll be new elections. Sunnis dominate four provinces. If the Sunnis remain unhappy with the constitution, they can exercise that veto, but what, asks Atiya, if they try but fail?

Mr. AL-ATIYA: The modern Sunni, which we are trying hard to bring them in, they will feel `We can't, we can't,' and again, you'll see another round of killing in Iraq which will lead ultimately to a state of despair or civil war.

REEVES: Resolving disputes over the constitution hasn't been made any easier by a lack of effective Sunni-Arab leaders. One of the more prominent, Adnan Pachachi, left Iraq after failing to win a seat in the January elections. He's just come back and with a plan.

Mr. ADNAN PACHACHI: We'd like to have a coalition which cuts across all the national confessional political differences, and, you know, including non-sectarian, secular with some moderate religious leaders, with some moderate tribal figures.

REEVES: Pachachi wants to form a broad political front with former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, particularly to counterweight the religious Shia who are close to Iran. Given his recent electoral defeat, his advanced age--He's in his 80s--and the threat of assassination that faces any Iraqi politician, you'd think he'd had enough.

Mr. PACHACHI: It's what my wife keeps on telling me, that enough is enough and, you know, you've done what you could do. You have reached a certain age and--well, I don't know. Maybe I am an incurable optimist. I have no idea. We'll see.

REEVES: But he's far from optimistic about everything. He doesn't like what he's heard about the constitution's possible contents. He opposes demands from the religious Shia to make Islam the main source of law, the other big unresolved issue, and he's against autonomy for the south.

As the political blocs wrangle right up to the deadline, Iraqis have been watching on with frustration.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: A committee of 71 Iraqis set up to draft the constitution insists the Iraqi public has been closely involved and consulted. It called a press conference just to reel off statistics, outlining the hundreds of e-mails it's received and the dozens of public meetings it's held. But as the violence rages on, sectarian and insurgent, Pachachi says people are now getting increasingly disillusioned.

Mr. PACHACHI: People were enthusiastic thinking that perhaps with a new constitution and elections. People are becoming extremely cynical now.

REEVES: Today will prove critical. If the constitution is delayed or is still the subject of intense dispute, that disillusionment will likely only deepen.

Phillip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.