Iraqi legislators chose a Shiite Muslim cleric yesterday to lead the drafting of Iraq's permanent constitution, a thorny process that could...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi legislators chose a Shiite Muslim cleric yesterday to lead the drafting of Iraq’s permanent constitution, a thorny process that could extend beyond a mid-August deadline because of ethnic and sectarian bickering.

The constitutional committee has three months to hammer out a set of laws acceptable to all of Iraq’s diverse religious and ethnic groups. Among the most daunting obstacles are how to incorporate Islamic law and how much autonomy should be given to the influential Kurdish minority.

Sheik Hummam Hammoudi, a relatively moderate cleric from the dominant Shiite political alliance, was named chairman of the constitutional committee under an agreement that put a prominent Kurd, Fouad Massoum, in the vice chairman slot. Both men vowed yesterday to reach out to Sunni Arabs, who have two representatives on the 55-member committee. They plan conferences to tap the ideas of academics, technocrats and politicians from all backgrounds.

“There’s an awareness inside the committee to allow all Iraqis to participate, particularly the political groups in Sunni areas,” Hammoudi said after the Iraqi legislature’s session yesterday.

Hammoudi belongs to the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that dominates the new government and has 28 seats on the constitution committee, giving it a one-seat majority. Massoum is part of a 15-seat Kurdish ticket. The remaining seats are divided among secular Shiites, Christians, Turkmens and Sunni Arabs.

Gaining Sunni participation could be key to making the constitution work.

“I met [Hammoudi] six days ago and I gave him a list of 10 Sunni law professors that we want to participate with full membership on the committee,” said Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al Samurraie of the government’s Sunni Endowment, which looks after mosques. “We want these professors to participate in writing the constitution, and they should approve any article before it goes to a vote in the national assembly.”

He added: “We have an alternative. If they don’t let Sunnis participate, we’ll reject the constitution.”

The inevitable struggle in balancing conflicting demands could make the committee miss its Aug. 15 deadline to present a draft constitution to the public for a referendum, several legislators said. Some are calling for a six-month extension of the deadline.

“Writing the constitution is important and we recognize that, but we can’t be sure that we’ll be able to write it by the deadline,” said Abbas al Bayati, a Turkmen member of the constitutional committee.

Lawmakers opposed to Hammoudi as chairman worried that a cleric leading the process would send the wrong message about Iraq’s future. Most political factions agree that Islam should be the official religion of Iraq, as it is throughout the region, but they’re split on whether Islamic law should be the basis or an inspiration for the constitution. Doctrinal differences between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam could cause disagreement.

Hammoudi, 53, comes from a well-known Shiite family with close ties to the ayatollahs in the southern holy city of Najaf. His early education was in psychology, but his graduate studies focused on Islamist economics, according to his official biography. His associates say Hammoudi was close to becoming an ayatollah, but instead he became a senior adviser to the leaders from his political party, the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hammoudi spent two years imprisoned under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Massoum, the Kurdish vice chairman, was confident that Hammoudi’s religious background doesn’t mean the role of Islam will receive greater prominence in the constitution.

“I know he is not a fundamentalist,” Massoum said.