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GWEN IFILL: The last-minute wrangling over a new Iraqi constitution, Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, stayed at the table late into the night. Shortly after the midnight Baghdad-time deadline, I spoke with Edward Wong of The New York Times.
GWEN IFILL: Ed Wong, thank you for joining us again. A seven-day extension in this constitutional deadline, what does that mean?
EDWARD WONG: That basically binds the leaders of the various political parties here more time to try to negotiate further demands. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride here the last several weeks. We’ve seen lots of different drafts of the constitution come out. We’ve seen the leaders make various pronouncements, some very extreme pronouncements; some are more in the ways of compromise.
And what we’re seeing now is this is crunch time and the leaders haven’t been able to reach any sort of major concessions or compromises, as the deadline has approached. So what they decided to do — what the Kurdish leaders decided to do — was they went forward to the parliament and asked the parliament to grant the seven-day extension, which the parliament can do under a three-quarters vote. And apparently that requirement was met so they will be going forward and trying to continue negotiations over the next week.
GWEN IFILL: The deadline was literally at midnight Baghdad time. and they came very close to almost breaking that deadline. What were the sticking points in the end?
EDWARD WONG: Talking to various members of the constitution committee and to different party leaders, there seems to have been an entire host of sticking points. A lot of people say it came down to two or three points, but my guess is that there is still at least a half dozen questions that remain unanswered and these aren’t minor questions; they’re very existential questions that reach to the very core of what Iraq is.
They’re questions like: How much power will the different provinces have to go out and form their own region, similar to the Kurdish region in the north; and once those regions are formed what kind of powers will those regions have? How much power will be split between Baghdad and these regions? How will the oil revenues be split between, say the Shiite South and the central government in Baghdad, as well as the oil fields in the north and the central government; and also questions of what kind of role will Islam play in the new constitution, will it be the sole source of the legislation or will it be one among several sources of legislation?
And lately we also heard that the Kurds have once again put on the table a demand that many of the Arabs find very inflammatory, which is the Kurds are asking for the right to secede to be enshrined in the constitution.
GWEN IFILL: So you’re talking about sectarian conflict, political conflict, economic conflict, even religious and some gender conflicts involved in this, and they had reached no agreement on any of these areas?
EDWARD WONG: That’s right. In the last several days, there have been times when they said an agreement has been reached, and then the next day we’ll see them backtrack and say that that compromise basically fell apart. I think what we’re seeing right now is we’re seeing a lot of the political parties basically scrambling to protect their own interests and to protect the interests of the constituency or what they believe is their constituency.
And it’s hard to discern what kind — whether they have the greater interest at heart, the greater interest of Iraq. What it looks like at this point, at this point tonight is that these are leaders who are trying to carve up various parts of Iraq for their own self interests, rather than banding together to create a country for the greater good of the people here.
GWEN IFILL: Was there ever any common ground that was agreed upon among all these different groups along the way, during this process, or did they all – have they all agreed to disagree on everything?
EDWARD WONG: No. There have been some basic issues in which they’ve been able to agree. For example, a little while ago, I looked at a draft of section two of the constitution, which talks about things like the rights of people. And there is a lot of language in there which the various groups have agreed on. There is also some language, which is still very much in conflict right now. And that includes things like family law, personal law, whether it will be based on individual interpretations of Islam or whether it will go to civil courts, for example. And that goes to the very heart of what kind of rights or protections will women have in the society that we’re going to see emerge from this.
So there are some — there are some points on which they’ve agreed. Another point on which they’ve agreed is the make-up of the new government. For example, they know that there will be parliament, they know that there will be prime minister and that there will be a president. And right now they believe that the parliament will probably be a bicameral house similar to what we have in the U.S. So in some basic issues they have reached agreement. But as we talked about before on the very most fundamental issues, the existential issues, they’re still far apart right now.
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned earlier the discussion about the impact of Islam in the drafting of its final constitution. Was there any sense or any vital disagreement that that was going to have too much of a role?
EDWARD WONG: There is a sense among some people that Islam might play too much of a role in legislation going ahead. There are several parties that are opposed to that. One is the Kurds who are generally more secular than some of the Shiite religious parties that have their strongest support in the South. The Kurds are insisting that Islam not be mandated as the single source of legislation or the main source of legislation.
The Kurds rather have more lenient language saying that Islam is a source of legislation, for example. Various secular groups in Iraq are also supporting that. Women’s groups are in general supporting that, and we’re also seeing the U.S. Embassy, the Ambassador (Zalmay) Khalilzad putting down his foot on that issue trying to flex their muscles in saying that they would rather have Islam play a lesser role than what the Shiite religious parties would like.
GWEN IFILL: And speaking of U.S. Embassy and the U.S. in general flexing its muscles, the president has made clear, the secretary of defense has made clear, the U.S. Ambassador has made clear that they believe that this deadline today Aug. 15 was an important one. The United States, is it prepared to do anything to force this seven-day deadline in the same way that it tried to urge the one for today?
EDWARD WONG: I’m sure the U.S. will be putting a lot of pressure on the various parties in the next week. I mean, essentially what happened today was that the parties missed their deadline. They never asked for a formal extension by Aug. 1 like they were supposed to. So what they had to do was to meet the deadline today. They missed it and basically at the last minute they fudged it and they tried to use bylaw in the interim constitution that would permit them to get around this deadline.
But I don’t think that we should be under any illusion that the seven-day extension is a formal extension, it’s something that they basically came up with at the last minute and the U.S. Ambassador, I assume is not very happy about that. I don’t think the White House will be happy about that. And I think they’ll be putting a lot of pressure on it in days to come.
GWEN IFILL: Ed Wong of the New York Times, thanks again.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: This evening Secretary of State Rice told reporters we are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq. She said that negotiators have achieved much and will yet produce a document to bring all Iraqis together.