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Iraqi Politicians Commit to August Constitution

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Iraqis drafting a new constitution say they will not need extra time to finish. The head of a drafting committee told Iraq's parliament today that the work can be done by the deadline, August 15th, despite the continuing insurgency. To finish in time, committee members will have to overcome Iraq's serious religious and ethnic differences, which will be difficult, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

No one ever thought it would be easy. The task is to write a constitution, the foundation of the new post-Saddam Iraq. A committee of 71 Iraqis has been working on it for around two months. But, says Mark McGoffman(ph), one of the Kurdish representatives, key issues remain undecided.

Mr. MARK McGOFFMAN (Kurdish Representative): Well, there are different points of view on federalism, the question of religious in the state and also things related to bilinguality, dual citizenship, some other issues. We have the women's rights, international immigration, human rights. These questions are to be sorted out. Of course, they need time.

REEVES: But time is short. There are fundamental issues in play; the extent, for example, to which Islam should form the basis of legislation. But the biggest question facing the authors of Iraq's new constitution is over how to share out the power and wealth between the provinces and central government. The Kurds want autonomy with control over a large slice of the oil revenues from their part of northern Iraq. And they want to extend their border south, bringing more of Iraq under their control. Ayad al-Samarrai, one of 15 Sunni Arabs specially drafted onto the committee, says this makes Iraq's Sunni minority uneasy.

Mr. AYAD AL-SAMARRAI (Sunni Arab): (Through Translator) There is a dispute over federalism. In the past, there was a form of federalism that the Kurds would accept. Now it has become a push to divide Iraq into different provinces. We in the committee of the 15 objected to such a thing and see it as irrational, since it might lead to the breakup of Iraq.

REEVES: The United States has been pressing Iraqi leaders to complete the constitution on time, paving the way for a referendum on it by mid-October and elections for a permanent government in December. Some Iraqis resent the pressure. Hassan Al-Atiya(ph), a political scientist, is a secular Shiite who spent the Saddam years in exile. He thinks creating the constitution is an opportunity for a public debate that could help heal Iraq's deep wounds, but that rushing it through could prove disastrous.

Mr. HASSAN AL-ATIYA (Political Scientist): You need time. In South Africa, it took them five and a half years, where they weren't even fighting. So they engaged among themselves in debates, bringing their differences so the constitution, of course, is gradually turned into nationally a reconciliation process. But you do it in Iraq in four months? Who's joking with me?

REEVES: Atiya believes the United States is trying to force the pace in order to begin withdrawing from Iraq, without, he says, fulfilling its obligations to establish a stable democracy.

Mr. AL-ATIYA: My guess, they're in state of mind of withdrawing from Iraq without fulfilling all their commitments. So on paper at least, it sounds that there is a country, there's a state, there's a constitution, there's election; though inside, the country is torn and divided inside. And I'm afraid--This is just a hunch, and I hope I am wrong--that we might be another Bosnia.

REEVES: As the politicians maneuver and wrangle, ordinary Iraqis watch on warily.

(Soundbite of people at a pool)

REEVES: At a Baghdad swimming pool, Samay Ahmed(ph), a housewife, has come to get a few hours away from the trials of daily life, the endless power cuts, the long lines for gas, the nerve-shredding daily violence and the heat. She just wants the constitution writers to complete their task as soon as possible.

Ms. SAMAY AHMED (Housewife): (Through Translator) I think it's all right now. It's better to finalize the constitution and go ahead, because if it were to be delayed, things shall remain in chaos.

REEVES: For some, like 30-year-old Mohammed Fadel(ph), hope is fading.

Mr. MOHAMMED FADEL (Citizen): (Through Translator) I'm not very optimistic. We were for a short period of time. And things can improve with good solutions. The drowning man would hold onto a stick, and the constitution is that stick. It is the last thing we have.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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