The credibility of Iraq's political process was in danger last night as parliament again failed to vote on a draft constitution which a Sunni politician said was "fit only for the bin".
The government had earlier announced plans to bypass parliament in an attempt to push through the document.
An armed member of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army stands in front of posters promoting the Iraqi constitution.(AFP/Essam Al-Sudani)
But as the final hours ran out before the deadline for approving the constitution, Hajim al-Hassani, the speaker of the parliament, appeared to overrule the country's leaders by insisting that negotiations would continue today, meaning that the deadline would be missed for the third time.
The impression of growing crisis in Iraq was reinforced when a new front erupted in the violent rebellion, with Shia Muslims fighting each other with guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister, made an emergency television appeal for peace and sent two police commando units to Najaf where the fighting had started.
Throughout the day in Baghdad, politicians bickered over how to proceed with the constitution without driving the country to civil war.
As night fell, the government's official spokesman, Laith Kubba, announced that a final version of the document had been decided and compromise reached on three issues, although he did not say which. Sunni leaders said that no consensus had been reached.
Hussein al-Falluji, a Sunni member of the drafting panel, said: "If this constitution continues to include federalism, it should be put in the bin and done again."
The chances of the parliament convening declined by the minute. Kamal Hamdoun, a Sunni negotiator, said the Shia politicians - the dominant force in the national assembly - had not turned up for a meeting.
"They are acting according to the law of force instead of the force of law. We call on all Iraqis to vote No in the constitutional referendum."
Shia politicians made clear that they did not see any need for the parliament to vote. The draft is to be put to a referendum in October.
The drafting began amid the optimism engendered by January's successful elections, when Iraqis turned out to vote in defiance of bombers and gunmen. But US hopes of establishing the first secular democracy in the Arab world have foundered on ethnic and religious divisions.
Gunmen opened fire yesterday on a convoy of cars used by the president but Jalal Talabani was not in it. Four bodyguards were wounded.
In what appeared to be an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions, the bodies of 37 Shia soldiers, killed with a single bullet to the head, were found in a shallow river south of Baghdad, the latest of several such grim discoveries. Police said they had been stripped to their underwear.
The minority Sunnis, who were the masters under Saddam Hussein, are implacably opposed to the federal nature of the constitution. They fear that it will place oil wealth in the hands of the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south.
The constitutional vacuum drew in another opponent of federalism, the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who was responsible for two uprisings in the south last summer but who has since been quiet.
At least 12 people were killed as his Mahdi Army militia clashed with members of the Iranian-linked Badr Brigade in six cities and a Baghdad suburb. Sadr has now formed common cause with the Sunnis, fearing that federalism will play into the hands of Iran.
The Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which dominated the elections. It wants the southern states to become a semi-autonomous region with partial control over its revenues and security.
The speed of the violence underlined that even a "defeated" militia such as Sadr's still has a formidable arsenal and that the security forces are nowhere to be seen when the fighting starts.
Armed clashes broke out in British-controlled Basra before dawn but later subsided. In Amarah, where British troops are also stationed, Sadr supporters were reported to have killed five people when they mortared Badr Brigade headquarters.
© 2005 Telegraph Group Ltd.