Forty die as Iraqi factions are given another day to agree deal

The speaker of the fledgling Iraqi parliament has announced a 24-hour extension to talks over the country's new constitution on a day of renewed sectarian infighting that left at least 40 people dead.

Hajim al-Hassani declared the second extension to negotiations shortly after the midnight deadline. "We found that time was late and we saw that the matters will need another day in order to reach results that please everyone, " he said.

The chaos inside the new legislature continued against the background of another surge in violence.

The latest bloodshed ­ including the deaths of 13 policemen and an American ­ came after dozens of masked gunmen occupied parts of Baghdad. President Jalal Talabani escaped an assassination attempt in which eight of his bodyguards were killed and 15 injured. In further evidence of sectarian unrest, the bodies of 36 men, thought to be Kurds, were found in a dry river bed near the Iranian border at Badrah. They had been "executed" with shots to the head.

Today's talks are an attempt to give the Shias time to respond to proposals tabled last night, Mr Hassani said.

Adding a fresh dimension to the crisis over the constitution, fighting also broke out between Shia groups divided over the issue. Nine people were killed.

Sunni officials are vehemently opposed to the federalism continued within the draft document, claiming it is a pretext for Shias and Kurds to carve up the oil-rich north and south of the country between them.

However, the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army, whose powerbase is in the relatively resource-poor central provinces, are also opposed to federalism, and yesterday they clashed with pro-constitution Shias of the Badr group, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. A series of gun battles was waged across the Shia heartland in southern and eastern Iraq.

Earlier yesterday, confusion surrounded the political process, with conflicting accounts from officials about the draft constitution. At one stage, a government spokesman, Laith Kubba, declared that changes had been agreed on the documents and it would be put to the vote in the National Assembly immediately. "By the end of the day we will have a final version of the draft. It will be approved. The National Assembly will then rubber-stamp it," he said.

However Bishro Ibrahim, a spokesman for the National Assembly, announced that no agreements had been reached.

While negotiations continued last night, one mooted scenario was for the draft ­ with some amendments but still containing the federalism reference ­ to be presented before the Assembly, but with the voting on its adoption deferred until Sunday.

The Shias and Kurds have an in-built majority in the National Assembly and will have little difficulty in driving through a vote. The constitution will then be the subject of a referendum in which it can be blocked if a two-thirds "no" vote is cast in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

The US President, George Bush, has announced the dispatch of extra troops to Iraq in anticipation of an upsurge of violence at the time of the referendum. Major-General Rick Lynch of the US Army said that coalition forces were ready to meet the situation. However, the attack on Baghdad appeared to have caught US and Iraqi government forces by surprise.

Dozens of masked gunmen took over the Khadra and Jamaa districts and killed alleged collaborators. Police who arrived in the area were then the targets of a succession of car bombs.

Maj-Gen Lynch said the insurgents appeared to "have the ability to pick the time and place of their choosing ... They have used swarm tactics and conducted a complex attack against civilians and Iraqi police officers."

A senior Iraqi police officer said: "They [the insurgents] are getting more and more daring. We weren't expecting this attack and we had to fight very hard. But we succeeded at the end."

Sticking points

* ARTICLE 1: "The Republic of Iraq is an independent, sovereign nation, and the system of rule in it is a democratic, federal, representative (parliamentary) republic." It is this article which is now the key sticking point, with the Sunnis claiming that federalism is a pretext for the Shias and Kurds to carve up the country's oil-rich northern and southern regions between them.

* ARTICLE 2: "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation... No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." Secular and women's groups have claimed that this may result in sharia law and restrictions on female rights. But the wording is expected to last into the final version.

* ARTICLE 3: Iraq "is part of the Islamic world and its Arab people are part of the Arab nation". Critics say the country should be called, more unequivocally, an "Arab nation". This wording is also likely to survive despite Sunni objections.

* ARTICLE 4: "Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages for Iraq. Iraqis are guaranteed the right to educate their children in their mother tongues, such as Turkomen or Assyrian." This is regarded as a vital guarantee for minorities against domination by the Arab majority.

* ARTICLE 16: "Equal opportunity is a right guaranteed to all Iraqis, and the state shall take the the necessary steps to achieve this."

* ARTICLE 20: "Citizens, male and female, have the right to participate in public matters and enjoy political rights, including the right to run as candidates."

* ARTICLE 151: "A proportion of no less than 25 per cent of seats in the council of representatives is specified for participation of women."

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