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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As Constitution Deadline Nears, Iraqi Unity Slips

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It is crunch time for the drafters of Iraq's constitution, and one question above all has stymied them: whether Kurds and Shiites should control their own regions and the oil money they generate.

On Sunday, transitional National Assembly officials argued about whether to seek a delay of the Aug. 15 deadline for completing the document to give them more time to hash out such sticky issues.

The key, when it comes to Iraqi politics, is the map. And what it shows is that in the Shiite Muslim south and areas close to the Kurdish north lie vast oil deposits worth billions of dollars per year. In the center, where most Sunni Arabs live, lie sand and scrub.

"Women's rights are very important, of course, but however they come out, it will not lead to civil war. Other things are far more likely to do that, and federalism is by far the hardest issue," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan, which tracks Iraq.

The Kurds have a head start in carving up the map, having enjoyed semi-autonomy from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime under the protection of a U.S.-enforced "no fly" zone. Kurdish leaders want the constitution to ratify and strengthen that autonomy by creating a federal system with strong regional governments entitled to a proportion of regionally derived oil income.

Most Shiite leaders, whose people suffered brutal repression under Hussein, say it is only fair for them to get the same autonomy as the Kurds so they can create a comparable region in the south.

Sunnis strongly oppose such an arrangement. They want more power to remain in the capital and money to be distributed by the central government. That is an arrangement in which they, as a minority, hope to have more control.

Sunnis fear that if southern Iraq establishes a Kurdish-style autonomy, eventually the country would violently break apart, and they would be left with little in the way of natural resources.

U.S. officials are also uneasy about an Iraq without a strong center. They worry that because of Sunni opposition to such an arrangement, it would worsen rather than resolve civil strife, gradually drawing in neighboring countries and fomenting trouble in the region. Furthermore, the U.S. mantra has long been a democratic, unified Iraq -- not three de facto countries.

"For the constitution to play the role that it should play to facilitate Iraq's success, it has to be a national compact among all Iraqi communities," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the new U.S. envoy. "It's very important that the constitution is produced through the participation of all Iraqis and that all Iraqis see themselves in this picture that is emerging. This is important for ending and defeating the insurgency."

Yet serious fractures are evident.

Two versions of the constitution were published in Arabic newspapers last week that highlighted two groups' distinct interests.

One draft, acceptable to many of the country's Shiite leaders and to some Kurds, featured a detailed section that would allow provinces to join together to form semi-autonomous regions. Each would be run by an assembly, a council and a president. The budget would be financed by a combination of grants from the central government and an unspecified share of the region's resources, enshrining in the constitution the right of local governments to their natural resources.

Another version, published in a Kurdish newspaper, was the Kurds' dream constitution, all but making their region an independent country. It would give the regional governments sweeping powers. Under this version, just 35% of natural-resource income would be sent to Baghdad.

That version also would require regional governments to approve laws passed by the National Assembly for them to take effect. Kurds say they need such powers to maintain their region's secular, Western character -- especially its progressive treatment of women.

"The Kurds are not fundamentalist, they are anti-Islamic form of government," said Nasreen Berwari, a Kurd who is minister for municipalities and public works. "The Kurds need to be very careful, very persistent. They need to be free to take or not to take whatever law is applied" in the rest of the country.

One increasingly likely scenario is that the drafters, in their reluctance to confront the difficult issue and force a compromise, will put in vague language that defers the hard choices.

Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, argued that regional autonomy was so divisive that decisions should be put off until after the next election, when there will probably be more Sunnis and other minorities in the National Assembly.

"It's very clear right now, national unity is jeopardized. National unity is not even possible right now because a lot of Iraqi people are not part of the general assembly," Allawi said.