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Iraqis race to finish constitution

For Iraq's constitution writers, meeting their Aug. 15 deadline has become a hedge against a broader civil war.

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In the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, Iraqi politicians are working overtime to put together a permanent constitution that can eventually guide the country to a peaceful future.

Keeping the political process on track is the only way to keep an edge vis-à-vis the insurgency, Iraqi and US officials say. And sticking to the schedule, increasingly, looks to be the key to preventing full-scale civil war.

Finding a sectarian compromise appears especially urgent amid a spike in suicide bombings over the past week, including Saturday's attack at a gas station next to a Shiite mosque in Musayib, south of Baghdad, which killed more than 90.

At each critical juncture in the political process, the Sunni-dominated insurgency is under pressure to prove its continued relevance, US officials argue.

However, the main factions on the drafting committee - Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis - say they agree on the rough shape of the constitution. They are now working "day and night" to hammer out a mutually acceptable draft by Aug. 15, the deadline for parliament to approve the document prior to a nationwide referendum to be held by Oct. 15.

"If you look at the path we were meant to be on, we're still on it," a Western diplomat in Baghdad says, despite the three months taken to form a government after Jan. 30 elections, and further weeks lost in figuring out how to include the underrepresented Sunnis in the next step. "Various groups, for their own reasons, are keen to stick to the timetable" on the permanent constitution, he adds.

The US-drafted Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which is Iraq's current provisional constitution, allows the drafting committee to take up to six extra months, if necessary, before the current government's term expires. Yet the longer the draft is delayed, the greater the risk of losing momentum. Iraq's second parliamentary elections, scheduled for Dec. 15, might be held off until well into 2006.

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