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Iraqi factions hold late talks

Qassim Abdul Zahra Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – With U.S. mediation, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish officials negotiated with Sunni Arab leaders Sunday over possible last-minute additions to Iraq’s proposed constitution, trying to win Sunni support ahead of next weekend’s crucial referendum.

But the sides remained far apart over basic issues – including the federalism that Shiites and Kurds insist on, but that Sunnis fear will lead to the country’s eventual breakup. And copies of the constitution were already being passed out to the public.

Though major attacks in the insurgent campaign to disrupt the referendum have waned in recent days, violence killed 13 Iraqis on Sunday.

In one attack, masked gunmen in police commando uniforms burst into a school in the northern town of Samarra, pulled a Shiite teacher out of his classroom and shot him dead in the hallway as students watched from their desks, police said. A suicide car bomb killed a woman and a child in the southern city of Basra.

A U.S. Marine was killed by a roadside bomb in the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Saturday, the military announced. It was the ninth American death during a series of offensives waged in western Iraq seeking to knock al-Qaida militants and other insurgents off balance and prevent attacks during Saturday’s national vote on the constitution.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told an Arab newspaper it will take five years to put down Iraq’s insurgency. He said Iraq’s security forces only carry rifles “while the terrorists possess all kinds of advanced weapons.”

As Sunni-led insurgents staged attacks to discourage Iraqis from voting in the referendum, the government launched a campaign to persuade Iraqis to go to the polls despite the threats – and despite calls by some Sunni Arab leaders for a boycott.

“We think (a boycott) would weaken Iraq because the only way that Iraq can recover is done by concentrating on the political process, writing the constitution and participating in it,” government spokesman Laith Kubba said. “Any act that calls for violence or boycotting would deviate the country from its course.”

Many Sunni Arab leaders are calling on their followers to turn out in force to vote in the referendum – but to vote “no” to defeat a draft they say will break Iraq into pieces, with Shiite and Kurdish mini-states in the north and south and the Sunni minority left poor and weak in a central zone.

Even with copies of the official text of the constitution being distributed to voters to consider before the polls, all sides were debating last-minute changes in a bid to swing some Sunnis to a “yes” vote. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani met with Sunni Arab leaders Saturday and Sunday trying to convince them on the changes, officials from all sides said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad “has a central role in the talks,” said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, though he would not say if Khalilzad was actually attending the meetings.

The United States is eager to see the passage of the constitution, since its rejection would prolong Iraq’s political instability for months – and could hamper the U.S. military’s plans to start pulling out some troops next year.

But there appeared to be too wide a gulf to get Sunni leaders to drop their opposition. While Shiite and Kurdish parties were willing to make some cosmetic additions to the draft, they rejected what they called central changes sought by Sunnis, particularly ones aimed at reducing the strong powers the charter gives to regional administrations over the central government.

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