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Interim constitution eludes Iraqi Council

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi Governing Council, deeply divided over the role of religion and other core issues in a future government, worked late into the night Saturday but failed to meet its deadline to approve an interim constitution. Some council members voiced strong optimism that differences could be overcome, but others said the group remains deeply split on key issues. "We started to learn a new trade, and it's called compromise," said Mouwafak Rabii, an independent Shiite Muslim member of the council.

The divisions within the U.S.-appointed council underscore the complexities of establishing a constitution that will satisfy Iraq's religious and ethnic groups sufficiently to deter widespread violence, observers said. Unless minorities are convinced that the new constitution protects them, civil war remains a possibility.

Many council members said they expect those differences to become more pronounced as decisions take on greater permanence. Under a Nov. 15 agreement with the U.S.-led coalition, the council had been required to draft the interim constitution by Saturday as part of a timetable that restores Iraqi sovereignty by June 30. That constitution is intended to guide the nation for the next 10 months and form the basis of a permanent constitution written next year.

As an insurgency continues to take lives and thwart progress, the shape of the caretaker government scheduled to take power this summer remains murky. And a date for elections has yet to be set. In Washington, a senior U.S. official downplayed the Iraqis' failure to meet the constitution deadline. "Nobody was ever counting on having it finished by Feb. 28." He said the effort to work out the needed legal structure won't be hurt "if it takes an extra couple of days."

The council members remain divided on issues of Islam's role in Iraq's laws, the authorities of independent militias and quotas for women serving in the legislature, a senior coalition official said. The debate over the interim constitution took on added significance Friday, when at least eight Shiite members walked out of a meeting after the council voted 15-10 to repeal a proposal that recognized Islamic law in Iraq's legal codes. Council members spent most of Saturday in small meetings, with many of the groups divided along religious and ethnic lines, said a senior coalition official who observed the process. The eight dissenters met as a group, but then joined other council members in discussions.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III joined council members at one point, said Mahmood Othman, an independent member of the council. Bremer must approve the final interim constitution and has indicated he will veto any provisions enshrining Islam as a main source of law.

By late evening, at least three council members said they were optimistic, although they were unwilling to say when the document will be completed.

"We are working very hard to hammer out the final details," said Samir Shaker Mahmoud, an independent council member. "We are determined this historic opportunity will be seized."

Others, however, voiced skepticism earlier in the day.

"There are now two governing councils—a big council, and a small council, and they aren't really talking," Othman said. "There is basic disagreement about some agendas that will not be resolved."

Senior coalition officials refused to speculate on what may occur if the constitution is not completed. Council members have said if agreement cannot be achieved on key points, those issues may be deferred to the permanent constitution.

Although an interim government is scheduled to take control by June 30, how that government will be chosen remains undecided.

Also unclear is when Iraq, a nation plagued by violence and lacking an electoral infrastructure, will be ready to hold free elections—a goal that all major groups embrace, although they differ on timetables.

Leaders of the nation's Shiite population, who constitute 60 percent of Iraqis, have insisted that elections be held by the end of this year. Others say that is impossible. A U.S.-backed United Nations team is expected to work with Iraqis to help determine how and when elections can be held.

Meanwhile, authorities say some kind of interim constitution is essential to ensure that fundamental rights are respected and the nation does not fall into further disarray.

Some observers said Friday night's vote shook Shiite council members who have cited the Shiite majority in arguing that their demands deserve attention.

"They lost a vote last night that was important to them by a large margin," said a close observer of the council who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There is a divide between those who want a secular Iraq and those who want an Islamic Republic. Yesterday, the Islamacists lost."

A representative affiliated with the council members who walked out of the meeting, however, insist that Shiites retain significant influence.

"We are the only organization in Iraq that manages to get millions of people into the streets," said Hamid al-Bayat, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which occupies one seat on the 25-member council. "We will be listened to."

Contributing: Paul Richter.