BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi political leaders delivered an incomplete draft of a new constitution to the National Assembly moments before a midnight deadline Monday and gave the parliament three more days to resolve the remaining disagreements before voting on the document.

Shiite Muslim and Kurdish leaders, fed up with the weeks of haggling over key issues such as the powers of the central government and the role of Islam, pushed the draft forward over the objections of Sunni Arab politicians.

The move was a gamble for the Shiites and Kurds, who risk further isolating the disaffected Sunni minority, which forms the backbone of an insurgency that has killed thousands.

Sunni leaders, who participated in negotiations despite death threats from the insurgents, already have warned the government that their constituents would mobilize to vote against the draft this fall unless their concerns are addressed. Under the nation’s interim law, if two-thirds of voters in three provinces vote against the constitution the national assembly will be dissolved and the process will begin anew.

Sunnis are banking on being able to find those votes in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, Salah ad Din and Ninevah provinces.

“The Iraqi people will be very pessimistic about what’s happening, and I tell you this constitution will not pass,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni negotiator. “If it passes, the street will up-rise. And if it does not pass, it means we will go for another transitional government, which is very bad.”

Sami al-Askeri, a Shiite member of the constitutional drafting committee, scoffed at such a scenario.

“There is no concern. Some of the Sunnis are, of course, unhappy with the draft,” he said in a phone interview. “But they only have Anbar … the majority (in the other two provinces) are not Sunnis. Most of them are Kurds and Shiites. They cannot manage to get the vote.”

The White House issued a statement praising submission of the document.

“We welcome today’s development as another step forward in Iraq’s constitutional process,” the statement said. “The progress made over the past week has been impressive, with consensus reached on most provisions through debate, dialogue, and compromise.”

Monday was the amended deadline for a draft constitution after members of the drafting committee – entangled in heated debates over Kurdish demands for a secession clause, Shiite demands for a bigger role for Islam, and Sunni Arab concerns over the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues – missed the original deadline a week ago.

“Believe me, there are at least 20 issues to be discussed now,” al-Mutlaq said. “Frankly speaking, I don’t trust them any more,” he said of the other negotiators.

With talks still at a stalemate on many issues, the drafting committee decided to send the sticking points to the Iraqi National Assembly to settle. The 275-member legislature, dominated by Shiites and Kurds, is expected to vote on a draft within three days.

Underlying question

The impasse highlighted not only the overt tensions among Iraq’s three major groups, which have led to a bloody tit-for-tat assassination campaign, but also the underlying question of whether Iraq will remain a unified country or break into warring territories defined by religious and ethnic boundaries.

Saleh Mutlak, a senior leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue, an influential Sunni group, held a news conference after the assembly meeting in the early morning hours on Tuesday.

“This constitution is full of mines that will blow up in the face of the Iraqis. With absolute frankness, we say that this constitution will divide the country,” Mutlak warned. “There will be many big dangers if they vote on it and send it to referendum … it will lead to the division of Iraq.”

For a few minutes Monday, the situation appeared to be headed toward resolution.

The assembly members began to fill the room at about 11:45 p.m., shaking hands and exchanging salutations. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari sat next to Shiite cleric and assembly member Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. They were joined by Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon darling who later sought political support from the Shiite clerical establishment.

The three men leaned toward each other, talking and smiling. Chalabi looked up at the stage in front of him and motioned with his hand in a gesture that asked what the hold-up was.

Hachim al-Hassani, the Sunni speaker of the National Assembly, walked to the front of the assembly a few minutes before midnight.

“Today,” he said, “the constitutional draft has been received.”

The room erupted in cheers and clapping. Several assembly members yelled “Allahu Akbar” – God is Great.

Then Hassani continued: “But there are still some remaining points that need to be solved during the next three days.”

The crowd fell silent.

“There should be an accord by all the factions on these points in order for the constitution to be satisfactory to everybody,” he said. “All of these factions during the next three days will try, God willing, to reach an accord about the remaining points that are still a point of contention.”

Homam Hamoodi, a Shiite cleric who leads the constitutional drafting committee, said in a TV interview that negotiators tried everything they could to please everyone, but that they had to eventually produce a constitution.

“We could not convince all the factions,” said Hamoodi. “Many of the things they asked for are in the constitution. We hope it will be a genuine step toward stability.”

But Naseer al-Ani, a Sunni member of the constitutional committee and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that he didn’t see the draft before it was submitted to the assembly.

“I haven’t seen what has been written,” he said. “I heard the press conferences but until this moment we can’t say that the issues have been agreed upon.”

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