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Lawmakers working against the clock to write Iraq's new constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) They huddle daily in a cavernous auditorium inside the most heavily fortified area of the capital, sometimes shouting as they argue about Iraq's new constitution, sometimes pausing briefly to munch on cookies.

But the breaks are few. Lawmakers drafting the country's new charter know they are working against the clock.

''Our major challenge is time and we are working day and night,'' said Mariam Taleb al-Rayes, a Shiite legislator and one of nine women on the 55-deputy constitutional committee.

''It's all down to time,'' she repeated between sips of an orange soda and bites of a cookie.

Iraq's 275-seat parliament has until mid-August to adopt a new constitution that hasn't yet been written and is expected to tackle the tough issues of the role of Islam in public life and the type of electoral system Iraq should have.

The document will face a nationwide vote among Iraq's fractious voters two months later. If adopted, it will provide the basis for a new election to be held by December.

The committee members meet in a second-story room behind dusty windows taped with a plastic coating to prevent the glass from shattering in case of explosions. The building is inside the Green Zone, a large swath of Baghdad where parliament, the U.S. Embassy and Iraq's government offices are located.

Those efforts were boosted Thursday when President Jalal Talabani averted a crisis by promising Sunni Arabs a big say in drafting the constitution.

The disaffected Sunnis who largely stayed away from the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections had threatened to boycott the constitutional process as well unless they were given more committee seats and their members were allowed to vote.

''We have decided to add about 20 to 25 members from Sunnis in the committee, which will draft the constitution with full rights like other members who were elected by the parliament,'' Talabani said after meeting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, said the details were being finalized, but ''this will be done very soon.''

The lawmakers wrangle over sensitive charter details as they try to ignore assassination attempts, death threats and suicide attacks. Just this week, gunmen killed two bodyguards of an official who is a committee member.

The latest move to lure the reluctant Sunni Arab minority into the political process came amid reports that the Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy were engaged in backchannel negotiations to get the Sunni-dominated insurgents involved in the political process.

At the same time, the government has undercut ties with the Sunni minority by supporting the Badr Brigade militia of the Shiites and the pesh merga of the Kurds. Talabani praised the militia as being the ''heroes of liberating Iraq'' in remarks Wednesday at a public ceremony.

The infighting over Sunni Arab participation has exposed the depth and danger of Iraq's sectarian politics. With government and parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds two communities that make up nearly 80 percent of Iraq's 26 million people but had long been oppressed the Sunni Arabs have grown more embittered.

Straw said he was confident Iraq would prove its detractors wrong.

''Many, many people said there was no chance of meeting a Jan. 30 deadline for elections, no possibility that the elections could take place in a free way. They were wrong on both counts,'' Straw said after meeting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

''I have every confidence that you will be able to meet those deadlines, the constitution will be delivered on time, there will be a referendum, and the elections will take place in December,'' he said.

Straw and three other senior European Union officials were on a historic visit to Baghdad, the EU's first since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime two years ago.

The trip came ahead of a June 22 international conference on Iraq to be held in Brussels, Belgium. More than 80 countries and international organizations are invited to the one-day session. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also is expected to attend.

The EU visit came on a relatively peaceful day around Iraq that saw little of the violence that has left nearly 900 people dead since al-Jaafari's government took office in late April.

If Talabani's pledge is accepted by legislators, the Sunni Arabs will join the Shiite-dominated committee in a parallel body that would make decisions by consensus and refer them to the 55 legislators for approval. They then will go to the parliament.

Sunni Arab legislator Mishan al-Juburi welcomed Talabani's promise, saying it would vastly improve the community's representation. Parliament must adopt the proposal, he said.

Sunni Arab support is crucial. The draft charter will collapse if three of Iraq's four predominantly Sunni Arab provinces vote against it in October.

Adnan al-Janabi, one of two Sunni Arabs on the committee, told The Associated Press that Sunni Arab groups have agreed to join the 55 legislators in an expanded body.

The question of Sunni Arab inclusion in the constitutional process, demanded by the United States and the 25-nation EU, is just one of several challenges facing legislators.

Al-Rayes, a lawyer, spoke of heated arguments in committee meetings, which take place in an auditorium twice the size of a volleyball court.

''It's a healthy thing that we argue,'' said al-Rayes. ''They are arguments about major issues and arise from conflicting interests.''

But Al-Rayes, one of the committee's three coordinators, dismissed the threat of violence.

''Dozens of people die in Iraq every day.'' she said. ''I am not any better than them.''

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