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Talks on Iraq constitution seek to fine-tune language

Shi'ites, Sunnis take to streets

BAGHDAD -- A week after the draft constitution was declared final, discreet talks were underway to refine language in a bid to win Sunni approval and ease fears of Iraq's Arab neighbors that the charter will loosen the country's ties to the Arab world, officials said yesterday.

As negotiators discussed possible changes, thousands of Shi'ite supporters and Sunni opponents of the document took to the streets yesterday to express their views ahead of the decisive Oct. 15 referendum.

Sunni Arabs rejected the charter that was approved Sunday by the Shi'ites and Kurds, who dominate parliament and government. The Sunnis cited a number of points, including federalism, references to Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated party, and the description of Iraq as a Muslim -- but not Arab -- country.

Sunni opposition threatens a divisive political fight in the run-up to the referendum, sabotaging Washington's hopes that the constitution would serve to unite Iraq's population, lure the minority away from the insurgency, and hasten the day US and other foreign soldiers could go home.

Iraqi authorities also plan to delay the start of Hussein's first trial until four days after the referendum to avoid further polarization, a judicial official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

With the stakes so high, the United States has been pushing the factions to continue efforts to overcome differences, even though the law forbids further changes in the draft.

''Discussions are underway to make minor changes in the language to improve the text to satisfy some parties," Shi'ite negotiator Khalid al-Attiyah said.

Sunni Arab and Kurdish negotiators confirmed talks were continuing, but a Western diplomat cautioned against speculation of dramatic changes.

''We understand there is ongoing dialogue between Sunni negotiators and the Shi'ites and Kurds," said the diplomat, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on the process. ''We don't have the specifics of what is being negotiated, but we know they are discussing language changes and slight modifications that would bring the sides closer."

In mostly Shi'ite Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, an estimated 5,000 people marched in support of the constitution, carrying banners saying it would bring ''freedom and justice." But about 2,000 mostly Sunnis staged an anti-constitution rally in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown. A smaller anti-constitution rally was held outside a Sunni mosque in Ramadi.

In other developments, the US military said two American soldiers were killed Thursday in Baghdad after their patrol was struck by a roadside bomb and a third was shot to death Wednesday in the central Iraqi city of Iskandariyah. At least 1,886 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Iraqis mourned and buried more of the 1,000 killed in a stampede on Wednesday. But while the country struggled to come to terms with the tragedy, a march aimed at reconciling Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims did not go ahead.

Iraq's two main religious communities had planned a joint march in Baghdad as a show of unity and a sign the stampede could become a catalyst for improved relations between them. But although members of both communities arrived at Baghdad's big Um Al-Qura mosque to pray together, Sunnis easily outnumbered Shi'ites, and despite calls from religious leaders on both sides, there was no peaceful demonstration.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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