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Iraq talks stall on oil wealth, role of Islam

Slobodan Lekic Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Talks on Iraq’s new constitution have stalled over the role of Islam and the distribution of the country’s oil wealth, negotiators said Saturday. The leadership of the country’s Kurdish minority said it may drop its contentious demand for the right to secede.

Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier assigned to the 42nd Military Police Brigade was killed by a roadside bomb in the Iraqi capital, the military said. U.S. troops and Iraqi police also clashed with insurgents, killing three of them and seizing a car used in the kidnapping-slaying of three members of the Iraqi Islamic Party the day before, police said.

Police Brig. Gen. Saeed Ahmed al-Jbouri said it was unclear if the dead were among those who grabbed three Sunnis on Friday as they hung posters encouraging people to register and vote in the Oct. 15 referendum.

Iraqis have until Monday night to complete work on the draft constitution or parliament must dissolve. The United States is putting intense pressure on negotiators to finish the charter, which Washington hopes will in time take the steam out of the insurgency.

Mullah Bakhtiyar, a senior official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, said all parties were showing flexibility in order to finish drafting the constitution.

“As for the self-determination for the Kurds, this issue did not enjoy the support of Sunnis or Shiites, and we almost gave up this demand,” Bakhtiyar said.

The Kurds have enjoyed de-facto independence since 1991. If they drop their demand to guarantee the right of self-determination – a code word for eventual secession that goes beyond mere federalism – it would represent a major concession and remove an obstacle to agreement on the charter.

But a comprehensive compromise on a constitutional draft remained elusive, with the main outstanding dispute focusing on the role of Islam in the new state, pitting Kurds and secular groups against Islamist parties representing Iraq’s Shiite majority.

“As for the issue of Islam’s role, negotiations are still under way,” Bakhtiyar said from the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

On Saturday, leaders of all factions continued meetings in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni representative on the drafting committee, said the talks had bogged down after “deep differences” emerged. He said Shiites were demanding that the new charter explicitly state that the decrees of their religious leadership were sacred – something both the Sunnis and Kurds oppose.

Later in the day, however, a Shiite member of the drafting committee, Khaled al-Attiyah, said the Kurds and Shiites had tentatively agreed on most points, except for the distribution of oil wealth. He added that the Shiite coalition had submitted a proposal on that issue, but it was still being discussed with the Kurds.

Al-Attiyah also said Sunni negotiators were supposed to join a plenary meeting of the drafting committee Saturday evening.

As the Monday deadline to finish the constitution approached, Sunni Arabs and some Shiites rallied in Baghdad and elsewhere Friday to protest calls for a federated state.

On Saturday, about 5,000 people gathered outside the main mosque in the western city of Ramadi to condemn the constitutional process.

In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, several hundred Arabs demonstrated against the charter, chanting, “Yes to unity! No to federalism!”

“We are against federalism (because) we believe that federalism is a step toward separation,” said Arab city council member Mohammed Khalil.

In the 1980s, former President Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and replaced them with Arab settlers. The city, which the Kurds seek to incorporate into their territory, has been the scene of ethnic tensions the past two years.

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