U.S. concession on Islam said to turn Iraq talks

Baghdad, Iraq - U.S. concessions to Islamists on the role of religion in Iraqi law marked a turn in talks on a constitution, negotiators said on Saturday as they raced to meet a 48-hour deadline under intense U.S. pressure to clinch a deal.

U.S. diplomats, who have insisted the constitution must enshrine ideals of equal rights and democracy, declined comment.

Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish negotiators all said there was accord on a bigger role for Islamic law than Iraq had before.

But a secular Kurdish politician said Kurds opposed making Islam not "a" but "the" main source of law -- a reversal of interim legal arrangements -- and subjecting all legislation to a religious test.

"We understand the Americans have sided with the Shi'ites," he said. "It's shocking. It doesn't fit American values. They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state ... I can't believe that's what the Americans really want or what the American people want."

Washington, with 140,000 troops still in Iraq, has insisted Iraqis are free to govern themselves but yet made clear it will not approve the kind of clerical rule seen in Shi'ite Iran, a state President Bush describes as "evil."

U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been shepherding intensive meetings since parliament averted its own dissolution on Monday by giving constitution drafters another week to resolve crucial differences over regional autonomy and division of oil revenues.

Failing to finish by midnight on August 22 could provoke new elections and, effectively, a return to the drawing board for the entire constitutional process. But a further extension may be more likely, as Washington insists the charter is key to its strategy to undermine the Sunni revolt and leave a new Iraqi government largely to fend for itself after U.S. troops go home.

An official of one of the main Shi'ite Islamist parties in the interim government confirmed the deal on law and Islam.

It was unclear what concessions the Shi'ites may have made, but it seemed possible their demands for Shi'ite autonomy in the oil-rich south, pressed this month by Islamist leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, may be watered down in the face of Sunni opposition.