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Iraq Transition

U.S. ambassador downplays Iraq constitution delay


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


Jalal Talabani

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- After U.S. officials had pushed Iraq's politicians for months to write a draft constitution by Monday, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq downplayed Tuesday the fact that the transitional government had extended the deadline by one week.

"It's a disappointment, not a significant setback," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq who has been proactive and vocal in the painstaking process.

"We shouldn't exaggerate its importance that they need a few more days. It's important that they get it right," Khalilzad told CNN.

Without the extension, the government would have dissolved, requiring new elections in December and starting the process again -- a prospect the United States has strongly opposed.

The new deadline is August 22.

There have been other big delays during Iraq's fledgling political process. In March 2004, the transitional law -- Iraq's interim constitution -- was delayed a week because of bombings in Baghdad and bickering between Shiites and Kurds. Earlier this year, there was extended haggling among officials before a transitional government was formed in April.

Khalilzad, who assumed his post in June, said the new agreement cannot please everyone and that it is possible the constitution won't deal in specifics with every tough issue on the table.

Khalilzad -- a Muslim and an Afghan-American who was an ambassador to post-Taliban Afghanistan -- said Iraq's lawmakers have made strides, reaching agreement "on many issues."

"We should remember it took us many years to put our own constitution together, and they're in much more difficult circumstances than we were."

He said there has been a general agreement on the issue of federalism -- the complex relations between the central, regional and local levels of government -- but he added that details still need to be worked out.

Iraq's Shiite Arabs and Kurds sought autonomous regions during the constitution-writing process, while the Sunnis, who were the ruling class under Saddam Hussein despite being a minority in the country, wanted the issue sidelined until a new government is elected.

Khalilzad said the document's language needs to smoothed out.

"Part of the problem last night was that the draft needed to be looked at very closely in terms of wording, in terms of making sure that things that people wanted included were, in fact, included.

"That things that were excluded from the various text were, in fact, excluded. I don't think this is a big deal."

Khalilzad said there has been agreement "with regard to the role of Islam," "the rights of Iraq citizens, including women," and the structure of Iraq's government.

Once a draft is completed and approved by the 275-member transitional National Assembly, voters will have a chance to approve it in a referendum scheduled by October 15.

As politicians returned to work on the constitution, the U.S. military announced the deaths of three U.S. soldiers with Task Force Baghdad. The soldiers died Monday when their vehicle overturned in a sinkhole during combat operations in the capital.

The number of U.S. deaths in the Iraq war stands at 1,855.

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