Iraq Faces Deadline, Renewed U.S. Pressure

With a week left before the new Iraqi constitution is to be presented to the National Assembly, many hurdles remain. And in the wake of heavy U.S. casualties last week, the United States is pushing hard for Iraqi politicians to finish their work. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Iraq today, political leaders planned discussions in an effort to resolve differences over parts of the country's new constitution. Only eight days remain before a draft constitution is supposed to be presented to the National Assembly, paving the way for a referendum in October and new elections in December. With the insurgency claiming increasing numbers of American military lives, the United States is pressing hard for Iraq's politicians to finish their work on the constitution, but profound differences remain. NPR's Philip Reeves is in our Baghdad bureau.

Philip, tell us about the meeting. Who's going to be there, and just how crucial is it?

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It is an extremely important meeting. It'll be attended by all the major players who are participating in the Iraqi political process: the prime minister, the president, the leaders of the party blocs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds and Shia. Interestingly, the Shias will be represented by several organizations which boycotted the elections but are now playing a part in the creation of a constitution.

HANSEN: We've heard a lot about federalism being the central issue under discussion. Explain. Why is that?

REEVES: Well, that's the issue attracting the most attention. There are others, also, but this is essentially about the demand from the Kurds of northern Iraq that their current autonomy should be enshrined in the constitution by creating a federal system, a federal Iraq. Now the Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam but are a minority, in particular, are uneasy about this. They believe it would lead to the breakup of the country. They also know that some Shia in the south also are talking about power being devolved to them within a federal system, and the Sunnis' fear is that it would mean the Kurds of the north and the Shias of the south would control the bulk of the oil revenue, because the oil fields are in the north and south, and they want the issue to be postponed until after elections for a permanent government, which are currently scheduled for September.

HANSEN: Now fill us in on the other news in Iraq this weekend.

REEVES: Well, against the political maneuvering that is going on now--and, as I say, there are other issues about the role of women, about Islam--there has been the pulse of insurgent attacks, the continuing violence and of sectarian attacks also. And today for the Iraqi government, a very worrying situation that is evolving in the south, in a town called Samawa. Now that's about halfway between Baghdad and Basra. It's a mostly Shiite town. And there were riots there today over jobs and services. The police opened fire. About 54 civilians are reported injured; some 21 policemen also reported injured. One civilian is reported dead. Apparently, a mortar landed within the crowd. The town has become highly unstable, with members of the families of the injured and dead threatening to avenge themselves against the police and also tribal leaders and a suspicion that the Mahdi Army, the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, is involved somehow in the creation of the violence that is happening there.

HANSEN: NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad. Philip, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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