Iraq's interim constitution signed in show of unity

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For an hour anyway, Iraqi leaders put aside their disagreements during the signing of a landmark interim constitution Monday, heaping praise on the U.S.-backed document amid patriotic songs and Quranic verses urging unity. But sectarian differences resurfaced as soon as the event ended.

The Shiites' most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, issued a religious edict saying he had reservations about the interim constitution and that it will gain legitimacy only when adopted by an elected assembly.

His supporters on Iraq's Governing Council pledged to try to amend parts of the charter, saying they effectively give minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims a veto over a permanent constitution due to be drafted and put to a referendum next year.

"This law places obstacles in the path of reaching a permanent constitution for the country that maintains its unity, the rights of its sons of all sects and ethnic backgrounds," al-Sistani said.

President Bush praised the 22-page document, saying in a statement that its adoption was a "historic milestone in the Iraqi people's long journey from tyranny and violence to liberty and peace."

Still, al-Sistani's edict and the Shiite Muslim council members' comments somewhat devalued the historic significance of the signing of a charter that promises to compensate Iraqis for years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, safeguard the freedoms and human rights of their ethnic and religious groups and lay down the foundations for a genuine democracy.

Senior Shiite clerics like al-Sistani are exploiting the void left by Saddam's departure to exercise enormous influence on the U.S.-backed political process in a political arena once dominated by Sunnis but now controlled by a Shiite majority and a large Kurdish community.

Monday's ceremony, held in the marble-and-glass Convention Center, a huge building inside the "Green Zone" complex housing the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, kicked off with a recital of carefully chosen Quranic verses that urged Muslims to set aside their differences.

Later, children dressed in Arab, Assyrian and Kurdish costumes performed patriotic songs.

"The Executioner is gone, festivities will begin, we will wear colorful clothes now that sadness is behind us," went one song that alluded to Saddam's rule. The performance drew warm applause from the roughly 200 guests, including L. Paul Bremer, chief U.S. administrator in Iraq.

Of the council's 25 members, 21 were present. Those absent were represented by deputies. Led by current council president Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, the members were called forward one at a time to sign the document, which sat on an antique wooden desk used by Iraq's first monarch, King Faisal I.

They used gold-and-blue fountain pens to sign the document and kept them as memorabilia. The 25 later posed for photographers standing in three rows on a podium. Sharing a laugh, many raised their hands in a gesture of unity and triumph. On the wall behind them hung a giant Iraq map with the words "We all participate in the new Iraq" inscribed in the middle.

Bahr al-Ulloum, an elderly Shiite cleric, described the signing of the charter as a "historic moment, decisive in the history of Iraq." His voice choking with emotion, he added: "Today, we stand on a historic day to lay the solid foundations of a new, free and democratic Iraq that safeguards the dignity of man."

Most of the council's 13 Shiite members refused to sign the document Friday, citing al-Sistani's opposition for their last-minute decision. During weekend talks, al-Sistani signaled to the Shiites that they could sign despite his reservations.

Bahr al-Ulloum's fellow Shiites on the U.S.-appointed council said that, for the sake of national unity and to keep the political process moving forward, they would sign the document despite their reservations. They said they intended to resume negotiations over those clauses and amend them in an annex likely to be agreed in April or May.

The annex will decide the shape of the Iraqi government that will take over from U.S.-led occupation authorities June 30. Iraq's permanent constitution will be drafted by a legislature elected by Jan. 31, 2005, and the Shiites politicians said the clause in question, if left unchanged, will encroach on the powers of the elected body.

"We say here our decision to sign the document is pegged to reservations," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a senior Shiite council member told reporters. "In reality, we had a choice between delaying the constitution or dealing with our reservations, particularly on two clauses, in an annex."

The more important of the two clauses in dispute, according to al-Jaafari, would give Kurds and Sunni Arabs a de facto veto over a permanent constitution. It stipulates that if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it, then the document cannot be adopted, parliament is dissolved and a general election is held.

Kurds make up the overwhelming majority of three northern provinces where they have enjoyed self-rule since 1991.

Kurds and Sunnis -- who combine for 30 to 40 percent of Iraq's 25 million people compared to the Shiites' 60 percent -- saw the clause as a safeguard against the domination of the Shiite majority. Shiite politicians countered that leaving the clause unchanged gives a minority of as little as 10 percent of the population the power to block the will of the remaining 90 percent.

Coalition officials defended the disputed clause as protecting minority rights.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior coalition official in Baghdad told reporters that the council members "made compromises and not all of them is happy and I am sure every single one of the 25, if he wanted to, could have found something to say about some article they didn't actually agree on."

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