Ideas would avert constitution impasse

A cleric wants to set up an autonomous Shiite government in parts of Iraq.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi leaders pledged that a draft of the country's new constitution will be ready by today's deadline as marathon negotiating sessions continued late Sunday with little progress in breaking deadlocks over the powers of the central government and the role of religion.
With the clock ticking and U.S. pressure mounting, Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari and other politicians insisted Sunday that a draft would arrive on time.
"We will get over these problems by the strong will and good intentions I'm feeling from Iraqi political figures," al Jaafari said in a statement. "I am optimistic."
U.S. officials have been increasingly vocal in their desire to keep Iraq's political process on track in hopes of quelling the country's stubborn insurgency and paving a road out for American troops.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that the failure to produce a draft today would embolden Sunni Muslim rebels and undermine the elected government in the eyes of Iraqis who risked their lives to vote in the January elections.
Iraqi leaders shuttled between meetings all weekend in an effort to reach agreements that satisfy Iraq's three main factions: Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. If they fail to produce a draft on time, Iraq's elected government will dissolve and new elections will be held, according to the country's transitional laws.
View of top Shiite
A top official in Iraq's largest Shiite political party said Sunday that the creation of an autonomous Shiite government in central and southern Iraq would pose no greater threat to the country's unity than the Kurdish one in the north.
Amar al-Hakim, a cleric and member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press after his father, who is head of the Shia bloc in Iraq's parliament, called last week for the establishment of a Shiite government in the region, which includes Iraq's rich southern oil fields.
The suggestion complicated negotiations on the new Iraqi constitution and enraged Sunni Arab delegates who fear federalism would lead to the disintegration of Iraq.
Although the Sunnis have accepted the 14-year-old Kurdish self-ruled area in the north, they do not want to see the system repeated elsewhere.
Senior negotiators for Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds said that an 11th-hour breakthrough appeared unlikely, and Sunday they were examining options for extending the talks.
One possibility under discussion involves handing a partially completed draft to the head of the Iraqi legislature, who'd wait a week before presenting it to lawmakers for a vote.
Described as the "back-door option" by one senior Iraqi politician, the move would satisfy the deadline, but it also would buy the drafting committee another week to settle the disputes.
Another option would be to defer the fiercely disputed issue of how to divide authority between a central government and Iraq's provinces until after the next elections, which are scheduled for December.
The result would be a document that serves as little more than a blueprint for a new government without defining Iraq's national identity, the role of Islam and regional powers.
In other developments:
U Early tests of chemicals seized at a suspected insurgent hideout in northern Iraq indicate they included substances that could be used in explosives, the U.S. military said Sunday. Col. Henry Franke, a nuclear, biological and chemical defense officer, said chemical samples indicate that the facility could have been used to produce explosives, and that it appeared to be associated with insurgents. However, he said no explosives -- only their components -- were found.
U Thirty bodies were found Sunday in a grave south of Baghdad, Iraqi forces said. Iraqi commandos were led to the grave in the Owerij industrial district in southern Baghdad after interrogating insurgents.