BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish leaders decided Friday to send an amended constitution to Parliament this weekend, even though Sunni Arab negotiators said they rejected the latest document. Bypassing Sunnis would be a blow to U.S. efforts to lure them away from the insurgency.

Unless reversed, the decision, announced by several Shiite officials after daylong negotiations, would set the stage for a bitter fight across the country. Shiites and Kurds will encourage their people to vote for the charter in the Oct. 15 referendum with Sunnis lobbying just as strongly against it.

In Washington, U.S. officials insisted negotiations were on track and that talks at some level were still ongoing before dawn today. However, Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba said the two-month negotiations were hopelessly deadlocked.

“This is the end of the road,” Kubba told Al-Arabiya television. “In the end, we will put this constitution to the people to decide.”

Failure to win Sunni endorsement of the draft would be a major embarrassment for President Bush, who telephoned a top Shiite leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and urged him to make compromises with the Sunnis to keep them on board.

Following Bush’s call, Shiite officials submitted compromise proposals to the Sunnis, agreeing to delay decisions on federalism and the status of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party until a new parliament is elected in December.

Late Friday, the Shiites said a “consensus” had been reached and the revised draft was ready to be submitted to parliament.

Sheik Humam Hammoudi, a Shiite and chairman of the constitutional committee, said the draft would be submitted over the weekend and 5 million copies distributed nationwide ahead of the Oct. 15 referendum.

But Sunni negotiators angrily rejected the compromises. A leading Sunni negotiator, Saleh al-Mutlaq, called on Iraqis to reject the document in the referendum, warning of a “terrifying and dark future awaiting Iraq.”

Kamal Hamdoun, another senior Sunni negotiator, also insisted that “no agreement has been reached so far.”

The Shiite alliance and the Kurds together control 221 of the 275 parliament seats and could win easily in a parliamentary vote on the charter, which requires only a majority. Some officials said technically no vote was required at all.

With 60 percent of the population, the Shiites and their Kurdish allies are gambling that the draft would win approval in the referendum. However, the perception that the Shiites and Kurds pushed through a document unacceptable to the Sunnis could sharpen religious and ethnic tensions.

As the talks dragged on, Shiite officials had become increasingly convinced in recent days that the Sunnis were stalling and wanted to torpedo any agreement.

The difficulties went beyond specific issues but pointed to fundamental differences on visions for the new Iraq. These included the country’s identity, whether Iraq would continue as a centralized state or a federation based on religion and ethnicity and whether former Baath members, most of them Sunnis, had a future in public life.

“We cannot imagine that an Arab population forming more than 80 percent of Iraqi society will allow the article reading that Iraq is part of the Islamic world instead of mentioning that we are part of the Arab nation, as if they want us to be linked to Iran and not to the Arab nation,” al-Mutlaq, the Sunni, told Al-Jazeera television.

Kubba, the government spokesman, told Al-Arabiya television that the talks stalled because, “One group sees Iraq as a single sovereign state while another sees a country made up of two or three parts.”

“An agreement between all parties is an illusion and a consensus is impossible,” Kubba said. “Therefore, the draft must be put for the people” to decide.

Sunnis fear that federalism, demanded by the Shiites and Kurds, would not only establish a giant Shiite state in the south but also encourage future bids by the Kurds to expand their region into northern oil-producing areas.

That would leave the Sunnis cut off from Iraq’s oil wealth in the north and south. More than a million Sunni Arabs live in areas dominated by Shiites.

Thousands demonstrated in support of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in a half-dozen cities Friday, and there were clashes with rival Shiites in the holy city of Karbala, part of ongoing friction that erupted among Shiites during the constitution crisis. Some pro-Sadr protesters raised the issue of the constitution but most focused on demands for improved services.

At stake is a political process that the United States hopes will in time curb the Sunni-dominated insurgency, and along with a better-trained and equipped Iraqi security force, enable the Americans and their international partners to begin bringing home their troops next year.

With more than 1,800 U.S. deaths since the war began in 2003 and falling poll numbers, the White House needs to show something positive from Iraq to counter the depressing litany of car bombings, assassinations and American battle deaths.

Sadoun Zubaydi, a Sunni member of the drafting committee, blamed the Americans for interfering in what was supposed to be an Iraqi process.

“To the last minute, this supposedly Iraqi process is being dictated by the U.S. government,” he said.

Sunnis had insisted that the contentious issues of federalism and the fate of Baath party members be deferred to the next parliament, in which they hope to have more members. Sunni Arabs form an estimated 20 percent of the 27 million population but won only 17 of the 275 parliament seats because so many Sunnis boycotted the Jan. 30 election.

Sunni Arabs resent attempts to ban former Baath Party members from government posts or political life, feeling that would deprive them of livelihood in the new Iraq and prevent the country from using the talents of thousands of professors, senior executives and others who joined the organization to advance their careers.

However, Shiites suffered under Saddam, and hatred for his Baath party runs deep. A move by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, to quietly reinstate some former Baath members in the security services cost him considerable Shiite support, and his party fared poorly in the election.

Al-Mutlaq, the Sunni negotiator, said the Shiites told the Sunnis they would agree to remove the phrase “Baath Party” from the draft “but today they came again and put it in the draft in a very stupid way by removing the word “party’ and keeping the word “Baath.”‘

He called on the Iraqi people to reject the constitution “because this constitution is the beginning of the division of the country and the beginning of creating disturbance in the country.”

“Don’t follow constitutions of the infidels,” influential Sunni cleric Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaei told the congregation Friday at Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque. “We don’t want a constitution that brings the curse of separation and division to this country.”


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