Iraq Leaders Sign Constitution

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–Iraq’s Governing Council has signed an interim constitution after weeks of wrangling in a key step towards the June 30 launch of a sovereign government–but the country’s top Shi’ite cleric has refused to endorse it.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani–who wields immense influence over the country’s 60 percent Shi’ite majority–said in a statement on Monday the interim charter would make it harder for Iraq to agree on a permanent constitution–a crucial foundation for democracy.

Sistani’s objections to the document forced the signing of the constitution to be abandoned at the last minute on Friday when five Shi’ite council members backed out of the ceremony. After talks at the weekend with Sistani and other clerics in the holy city of Najaf–they went ahead with the signing on Monday.

The Shi’ite politicians said Sistani gave them the go-ahead to sign despite his objections because he did not want to seem to be blocking progress. But the cleric’s misgivings will make it harder for Iraq’s occupiers to win backing for their plans.

Blasts rang out across Baghdad just before the signing–as a crowd of children dressed in Iraqi national costumes sang traditional songs to assembled dignitaries at the ceremony.

Police said guerrillas fired mortars at a police station–wounding three civilians and two policemen. Security forces had been on high alert for attacks aimed at disrupting the signing.

PAINFUL BIRTH

Adnan Pachachi–a senior member of the Governing Council–said at Monday’s ceremony the event was "a great and historic day for Iraq." Iraq’s US governor–Paul Bremer–also hailed the agreement and noted the difficulties it had faced.

"We are witnessing the birth of democracy and birth is painful–as we’ve learned over the last few evenings," he told the council. "Not everyone got everything they wanted in this law–that’s the way of democracy."

US President George W. Bush said that "while difficult work remains to establish democracy in Iraq–today’s signing is a critical step in that direction".

"This document is an important step toward the establishment of a sovereign government on June 30. It lays the foundation for democratic elections and for a new constitution," Bush said.

The signing ceremony had been delayed twice–first by bomb attacks on Shi’ites that killed at least 181 people last Tuesday–and then by Sistani’s intervention on Friday.

Sistani–a 73-year-old Iranian-born religious scholar–has increasingly exerted his influence on politics in recent months to ensure Shi’ite aspirations are heard. Earlier this year the US-led authority accelerated the timetable for elections after Sistani demanded polls as soon as possible.

SHI’ITES AT ODDS WITH KURDS

Governing Council members said Sistani’s main objection to the interim charter was a clause that could allow minority Kurds to veto a permanent constitution due to be drawn up next year if it does not enshrine their deman’s for autonomy.

Sistani also says an unelected body should not be allowed to pass legislation. Under the US plan–an unelected Iraqi government will take over sovereignty on June 30. An assembly will be elected by end-January next year and full democratic elections will be held by the end of 2005.

"This (law) places obstacles to arriving at a permanent constitution for the country that preserves its unity and the rights of its people–in all their ethnicities and sects," said the statement issued by Sistani’s office in Najaf.

"Any law prepared for the transitional period will not have legitimacy until it is approved by the elected national assembly."

Shi’ites in the Governing Council said they hoped a permanent constitution would undo some of the concessions they had made in order to get the interim document agreed.

"We will do our best to change the situation," said Hamid al-Bayati–a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–a top Shi’ite party.

"We are committed to what we signed but if we have the chance to alter it in the future–we will do our best."

That could put Shi’ites at odds with the Kurds–who say they will never agree to give up their autonomy in three northern provinces they wrested from Saddam Hussein’s rule in 1991.

Several contentious issues had threatened the passage of the interim constitution. Shi’ites had wanted Islam to be recognized as the main source of legislation; instead–it was recognized as one source–and as the official religion of Iraq.

The Kurds wanted and got recognition of the governmen’s they established in the northern zone since 1991–but not the clear assurances they had sought that their militias would be the only military force there–rather than the central government’s army.

The agreed document embraces a federal state–as the Kurds had demanded–and also sets a target that one quarter of the Iraqi assembly due to be elected next year should be women.

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