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Iraq's politicians have just one day to finish writing a constitution. The deadline for presenting it to Parliament has already been extended once, much to the annoyance of the Bush administration, which is pressing the Iraqi politicians to complete their work. Tomorrow the second deadline expires. Although the Iraqis may well choose to extend the deadline again, signs are emerging that progress has been made. But there's still a heated debate going on, some of it in the streets. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Baghdad. He sent this report.
PHILIP REEVES reporting:
Iraq is no place to be a gambler. These are tough and complex negotiations about the future shape of a nation. All of the players know all about gamesmanship. For weeks claims about what has or has not been decided were no sooner made than contradicted. Only a fool would bet on the outcome. Yet in the last 24 hours there has been a change of mood, a glimmer of optimism. Shiite politicians today said they're confident the deadline will be met. And three members of the Iraqi Constitution drafting committee told NPR a key issue, the role of Islam, has been settled. Shiite negotiator Baha al-Aragi(ph) is one of them.
Mr. BAHA AL-ARAGI (Shiite Negotiator): (Through Translator) It's been decided that Islam will be one of the fundamental sources for law. Other sources for law will not contradict its principles.
REEVES: This is worrying women's activists. The US has made clear the constitution must protect women's rights. In the end, there may be a separate constitutional clause to that effect. But that didn't deter a group of women's rights campaigners from taking to the streets of Baghdad this morning to make their feelings felt.
(Soundbite of protesters)
Ms. FULAH KEELELL: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: `We want a secular constitution, one that secures the rights and freedoms of women,' says Fulah Keelell(ph).
Optimism that the talks will succeed is not unanimous. Gloom continues to emerge from within the minority Sunni Arab camp. One of the biggest disputes has been over whether Iraq should have a federal system and, if so, what form it should take. The issue has caused particular concern among Sunni Arabs, who fear it will mean the Shiite south will carve out a separate autonomous region for itself, taking the rich southern oil fields with them. One Sunni negotiator said today the federal issue still isn't settled and expressed strong doubt there'll be an agreement by the deadline.
The federal issue has split the Shia. The head of one of its leading parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, recently called for a federal region in the south. But this weekend supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were dispatched to the streets of Baghdad to call for the opposite, a united Arab.
(Soundbite of protesters)
Mr. ABI DELAMIR HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: `Federalism will smash Iraq into pieces,' says one demonstrator, Abi Delamir Hussein.
The question now is: What happens if Iraq's political blocs again don't reach an agreement on time? They could extend the deadline once more, causing further embarrassment to the US. Nasser al-Samurai(ph), a political analyst and a Sunni, believes they'll choose other options.
Mr. NASSER AL-SAMURAI (Political Analyst): (Through Translator) I think many disputed points will be postponed for a decision by the next national assembly to be elected in December, or there will be a decision to dissolve the national assembly. We'll start again from square one.
(Soundbite of siren)
REEVES: As the wrangling continues to the very last minute, the mood today on the streets of Baghdad was impatient. Worn down by violence and dismal public services, Iraqis say they're getting tired of the talking. They want results. Listen, for example, to Anwar Abdul Kadir(ph).
Mr. ANWAR ABDUL KADIR: (Through Translator) All the mess and the explosions are caused by the delay of the constitution, all those who are killed. I and my friends who have been at home for more than two years have been waiting for the constitution. We haven't had electricity for two days. Where is the constitution?
REEVES: For the next day or so Anwar will be closely watching events but probably not laying any bets. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad.
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