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Iraqi Group To Report Deadlock On Method to Draft Constitution

By Patrick E. Tyler

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

As the Iraqi Governing Council presses for a more rapid end to the American occupation and a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, a new dispute over who will control the drafting of an Iraqi constitution is bringing to the surface deep divisions among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

A 25-member committee of Iraqi officials, who have been deliberating for two months to recommend a procedure for drafting the constitution, said they were deadlocked.

Their report, expected on Tuesday, is likely to send the complex questions of who should draft a new founding document back to the Governing Council and the occupation authorities. Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell challenged Iraqis to complete a new constitution within six months, but committee members said that goal would be all but impossible to achieve.

In interviews, members of the committee said that religious and ethnic differences were to blame for their deadlock. Neither the occupation powers nor the United Nations, whose presence here has been sharply reduced after two bomb attacks on its Baghdad headquarters, have tried, the committee members said, to overcome old suspicions between Sunnis and Shiites that one group will try to dominate the other.

One member said the exercise had in effect become a device to defer a complex political negotiation that is crucial to defusing any potential for civil conflict. The report is expected to bring the issue out into the open.

At the core of the dispute is whether to hold elections for a constitutional assembly, a step that some members fear would allow Shiites to dominate the process.

The top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, insists that a national census be organized to affirm the Shiites’ majority of 60 percent to 65 percent of the population, followed by an election for the constitutional assembly.

The committee voted 24-0 on Sept. 8 to endorse this proposal, but a number of members said they had grave reservations and were quietly pushing for some alternative.

Even if procedures can be agreed on, it could take a year or more to draft a constitution, some committee members predict.

“We need time,” said Fuad Massoum, a Kurdish leader who is chairman of the committee. “This is why a census is so important. We must reach agreement of all the members of the Iraqi mosaic.”

He also said the process would likely need the help of the United Nations or a prominent international leader to ensure that each major ethnic and religious group believes that its rights have been protected.