BAGHDAD, Iraq - In another dramatic last-minute standoff, Iraqi leaders late Monday put off a vote on a draft constitution, adjourning Parliament at a midnight deadline in a bid for more time to try to win over the Sunni Arab minority whose support is key to ending the insurgency.
Negotiators representing majority Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs finished the draft on Monday and prepared to submit it to parliament as the lawmakers convened minutes before midnight. But they withdrew the draft in the final minutes because of fierce resistance over issues including federalism, which Sunnis fear could cut them out of most of the country's vast oil wealth.
The 15 Sunni Arab members of the drafting committee issued a statement early Tuesday saying they had rejected the constitution because the government and the committee did not abide by an agreement for consensus.
"We reject the draft constitution that was submitted because we did not have an accord on it," said Sunni delegate Nasser al-Janabi.
Although the statement was issued after parliament had deferred a decision, it was significant because it indicates the Sunnis can try to block any accord with which they do not agree entirely. That could severely complicate the discussions in the coming days.
The numerous remaining issues cast doubt whether the Iraqis would be able to finish the document within a few days since the various groups have widely differing positions on all those points. Repeated delays are a deep embarrassment for the Bush administration at a time of growing doubts within the United States over the mission in Iraq.
One Shiite negotiator cautioned it was "not possible to please everyone." But the negotiator, Humam Hammoudi, Shiite chairman of the 71-member committee that struggled for weeks to try to complete the draft, said "many things have been achieved in this constitution and we hope it will be a real step toward stability."
When the lawmakers convened shortly before midnight, parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani told them there was strong interest in reaching unanimity on the draft "so that the constitution pleases everyone."
"All these groups in the coming three days will try, God willing to reach accord on some points that are still disagreements," he said. "The draft constitution has been received and we will work on solving the remaining problems."
He then adjourned the session without a vote.
Afterward, he told reporters that the main outstanding issues were federalism, the formation of federal units, problems related to mentioning the Baath Party in the constitution, and the division of powers between the president, the parliament and the Cabinet.
Washington had applied enormous pressure on the Iraqis to meet the original Aug. 15 deadline but parliament instead had to grant a week's extension, which they again failed to meet.
The first deadline to adopt a constitution expired a week ago, with Parliament voting to extend it for seven days. The legislature supposedly had to disband if the deadline was not met, but lawmakers said nothing about that late Monday.
Shiites and Kurds have enough seats in parliament to win approval for a draft without the Sunni Arabs. But the Sunni minority could scuttle the constitution when voters decide whether to ratify it in the Oct. 15 referendum. Under current rules, the constitution would be defeated if it is opposed by two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. Sunni Arabs form the majority in at least four.
In addition, an attempt by Shiites and Kurds to win parliamentary agreement without the Sunnis could risk a backlash within the community that is at the forefront of the insurgency and undercut U.S. hopes to begin withdrawing troops next year.
The Kurds demand federalism to protect their self-rule in three northern provinces. Sunni Arabs oppose that, fearing Kurds want to declare independence. Shiites are divided, with factions supporting federalism wanting to build a Shiite region in the south.
The showdown on the constitution came as violence persisted in Iraq.
The U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers from Task Force Liberty were killed Monday by a roadside bomb during a combat patrol north of Baghdad, and two more soldiers died when their vehicle overturned during a military operation near Tal Afar. At least 1,870 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
President Bush defended the war in Iraq on Monday in the face of growing skepticism, asserting that "a policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety" from terrorism.
"The only way to defend to our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live," Bush said in Salt Lake City in a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.