BAGHDAD, Iraq — American and U.N. diplomats stepped up pressure Saturday on Sunni Arabs to accept a new constitution with only two days before the deadline for its approval. A top Sunni official said his group would never accept terms that would lead to the division of the country.
President Jalal Talabani predicted a draft constitution will be ready by Monday’s deadline, and a Kurdish official said the draft would be presented to parliament with or without Sunni approval.
With time running out, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi met separately with Sunni leaders but failed to persuade them to accept a federal system.
“We will not be subdued and will continue to cling to our stance,” Sunni negotiator Kamal Hamdoun said. “We don’t accept federalism … We don’t want federalism. We are confident that federalism means division and federalism cannot be approved at this time.”
The final negotiations on the document — a key part of the political process the United States is counting on to curb a Sunni-dominated insurgency — took place against the backdrop of continuing violence.
Bombs and gunfights killed at least 12 people, and a U.S. armored vehicle was set ablaze in eastern Baghdad. No American casualties were reported.
In his weekly radio address, President Bush said Saturday that the Iraqi constitution “is a critical step on the path to Iraqi self-reliance.”
Talabani told reporters that negotiations were concentrating on the question of whether to transform Iraq into a federal system and the role of Islam. Sunnis have accepted the 14-year-old Kurdish self-ruled area in the north but do not want to see the system repeated elsewhere.
“We have gone forward,” Talabani said. “There is a meeting today and another meeting tomorrow and God willing we will finish the job tomorrow” — one day ahead of the deadline for parliament to approve the charter.
Negotiations were thrown into a tailspin Thursday when the leader of the biggest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called for a Shiite autonomous government in central and southern Iraq, including the southern oil fields. That enraged Sunni Arab delegates, who fear federalism will lead to the disintegration of Iraq.
Hamdoun said the Sunnis did not consider themselves bound by an agreement worked out between the Shiites and Kurds. He said the Sunni Arabs were under “Iraqi and non-Iraqi pressure” but “we are not affected by pressure.”
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian and member of the committee drafting the constitution, said the Shiites and Kurds had reached a number of agreements and were working to persuade the Sunnis to join them.
But, he cautioned, “If the Sunnis refuse to accept the agreements, we will present the draft as it is to the National Assembly.”
That strategy could backfire, however, in the Oct. 15 referendum when voters will be asked to ratify the constitution. According to the country’s interim charter, the constitution will be void if it is rejected by two-thirds of voters in three of the 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs are a majority in four.
Sunni Arabs were to meet Sunday with members of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s secular party while the Shiites were to confer with Kurds, Iraqi officials said, adding that Khalilzad was expected to attend both sessions.
Othman said Kurds and Shiites had agreed that Islam would be recognized as the official religion but the question remained about “whether Islam will be the main source or a source of legislation in the constitution.”
Many secular-minded Iraqi women fear a loss of their rights if Islam is designated as the main source of legislation.
Despite word of agreements on specific issues, it appeared some details had been left unresolved and would be taken up by the new parliament next year.
For example, a Shiite member of the drafting committee, Nadim al-Jaberi, said leaders agreed regional governments in oil-producing areas would keep 5 percent of the revenue and the rest would go to the central government for distribution to other areas based on their population.
Later, however, Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum said the constitution would simply declare that natural resources were for all Iraqi people, with details of revenue distribution to be worked out later.
“But the fact and the principle in the constitution is that Iraqi oil for the Iraqi people,” he told The Associated Press.
In Saturday’s violence, American and Iraqi forces killed one insurgent and wounded four in Mosul after they were attacked by gunfire, the U.S. military said in a statement. U.S. and Iraqi troops killed another suspected insurgent near Tarmaiya north of Baghdad.