Leaders Hurry to Meet Iraqi Charter Deadline

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Under strong pressure from the United States, Iraqi leaders met Sunday in a last-ditch bid to reach agreement on a new constitution only one day before the deadline for parliament to approve it. One lawmaker raised the possibility the deadline may have to be postponed.

A meeting was held Sunday morning between President Jalal Talabani, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and parliament Speaker Hajim al-Hassani, Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said. He added that there was to be a planned session between Sunni politicians and Barzani at noon. In the evening Kurdish and Shiite leaders were to meet at the office of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Al-Hassani's office issued a statement Sunday saying that meetings were still going on "to reach satisfactory solutions on all pending points in the draft constitution."

The statement added that all leaders were "exerting all their efforts to solve the matters ... and no final agreement has been reached until this moment."

Talks seem to be concentrating on tense issues such as federalism and the role of Islam in the state -- issues which have blocked progress on the draft for weeks.

With little sign of progress, legislator Jawad al-Maliki, a member of al-Jaafari's Dawa Party, told The Associated Press on Sunday "if we don't reach an agreement today, we might amend the interim constitution and extend the deadline by a minimum of two weeks."

The interim constitution states that amendments can be made only with the approval of three-fourths of the 275-member parliament and the unanimous approval of the president and his two deputies.

On Saturday, Talabani predicted a draft constitution would be ready by Monday's deadline, and Othman said the draft would be presented to parliament with or without Sunni approval.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and UN envoy Ashraf Qazi met separately with Sunni leaders Saturday 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 Saturday. "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."

In the northern cities of Irbil, Kirkuk, Dahok and Sulaimaniyah, hundreds of Kurds marched in the streets demanding that they be given the right of self-determination in the new constitution.

They also called for redefining the border of the Kurdish region and solving the problem of Kirkuk, where thousands of Kurds were deported and replaced by Arabs during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Article 58 in the interim constitution, which remains in effect, gives them the right of return or compensation.