A day after a delay caused by a massive sandstorm in the capital, Baghdad, top Iraqi politicians arrived to hammer out the charter determined to press on with resolving key sticking points.

Issues such as the scope of Iraqi federalism remain divisive, with Kurds insisting on maximum autonomy in the nation’s north, while Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs are at odds over whether other provinces should also get autonomy.

Assurances were offered by US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad, that Kurds were pushing only for autonomy and not independence.

However, Mr Khalizad suggested that broader concerns, namely the role Islam should play, were also generating debate.

“There are some issues over the role of Islam and whether it should be ‘a main source’ or ‘the main source’ of legislation,” the ambassador said.

The question of women’s rights has also stirred some dissent, with a group of ultra-conservative women mounting a demonstration in central Baghdad arguing against moves to strengthen women’s place in politics.

Fadia Al-Aaraji carried a banner bearing the message that the rights of Iraqi women were guaranteed by Islam, and needed no special provisions within the constitution.

But Environment Minister Narmine Othman, associated with a liberal group, expressed the view that women’s voices should be heard.

“We fear that articles will be unjust for women,” Ms Othman said.

In Washington, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld urged a swift completion of the draft charter, saying it “could well turn out to be one of the more powerful weapons to be deployed against the terrorists.”

Underscoring his words, fresh attacks in Iraq killed at least 31 people.

The defence secretary warned of intensified fighting as Iraq moves closer to a referendum in October and an election in December.

General Richard Myers, America’s top military commander, admitted that it was impossible to tell when US forces would hand over the job of leading the fight against insurgents to Iraqi troops.

“You can’t predict you troop strength base on what you think is going to happen. You have to wait until events on the ground prove it,” the general said.

But for an increasing number of Americans, the time when the United States’ 138,000-strong force begins sending soldiers home will not come soon enough.

According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq has made their country more vulnerable to attacks.

Fifty-six percent said some or all of the US troops in Iraq should be withdrawn, and that the war was going badly.

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