Iraq moves a step closer to self-rule

Religious and ethnic differences aside, the Governing Council signs an interim constitution.

After two weeks of heated debate, a missed deadline, and two postponements, Iraq's Governing Council formally signed a landmark interim constitution Monday, having resolved last-minute reservations by the country's leading Shiite cleric.

Before an audience of Iraqi dignitaries and coalition officials, the 25 council members smiled and joked with each other as they signed the charter on a table that once belonged to King Faisal I of Iraq.

"Today, we are witnessing an historic moment, a decisive moment in the history of the glorious Iraqi people," said Mohammed Bahr al-Ulum, who holds the council's rotating presidency this month. "We stand here during this historic moment to put the foundation for the reconstruction of a new Iraq; a new, free, democratic Iraq that protects human rights."

The relaxed atmosphere at the signing came in marked contrast to the acrimony over the weekend generated by the refusal of five Shiite council members to initial the document on Friday. They were apparently acting on the advice of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite cleric who has emerged as the most powerful voice in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

That final hiccup was only the latest in a series of disputes that has dogged the process since the council members began a series of marathon sessions last month to forge an interim constitution by Feb. 28, a deadline they overran by nine days.

The signing was also postponed for two days last week to mark a mourning period for the victims of the devastating bombings of Shiite holy shrines in Karbala and Baghdad that killed at least 181 people.

The protracted wrangling over the document, which took on religious and ethnic dimensions, does not bode well for what will surely be a sharper debate over a permanent constitution.

The Shiites, which account for about 60 percent of Iraq's population, had reservations about a Kurdish-backed clause dealing with a permanent constitution as well as the composition of the presidency.

The clause states that the permanent constitution will fail if two-thirds of the population of three provinces object. With minority Kurds controlling the three northern provinces of Dohuk, Suleimaniyeh, and Arbil, Shiites feared that the clause granted the Kurds a veto.

The Shiites had also wanted a council of five presidents in which three would be Shiites and the other two split between a Kurd and a Sunni. The interim charter instead provides for one president and two deputies.

The dispute was resolved when Ayatollah Sistani was persuaded by Shiite council members to drop his objections and allow the signing to proceed. Any further delays in passing the document risked upsetting the transfer of sovereignty from the US-led coalition to an Iraqi interim government on June 30.

In the end, the Governing Council met Monday morning and approved the charter unanimously with a show of hands. Before anyone could change their minds, the 25 councilors were ushered before the glare of television cameras to seal their decision by initialing the charter.

"The basic law of the Iraqi government during its interim period ... represents the first constitutional experiment in Iraq," Sheikh Bahr al-Ulum said. "It represents a political agreement and a compromise among its people. This compromise will protect its land and its people's rights."

The key points of the interim constitution, as outlined by Bahr al-Ulum, are:

• The end of the US-led occupation and the restoration of sovereignty on June 30.

• The unity of the Iraqi people and territory.

• Guaranteeing the rights of all Iraqis irrespective of religious or ethnic background.

• Enshrining the Islamic identity of Iraq and guaranteeing that no law will contravene sharia, Islamic law.

• A federal system of government.

• Equal distribution of income from natural resources.

• The return of Iraqi refugees and the restoration of citizenship to those who were stripped of it by Saddam Hussein's regime.

• Full rights for Iraqi women.

The interim charter will expire no later than Dec. 31, 2005.

By the time discussions begin in earnest to forge a lasting constitution, the American-led occupation will be over. US overseer Paul Bremer will no longer be around to keep the process moving, as he and his British deputy, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, did at the start of the month when the council was deadlocked over key elements of the document.

"I can assure you that discussions for the constitution will always be direct and difficult," says Hamid al-Kifay, spokesman for the council. "I don't think defining the permanent constitution is going to be easy. It will have to satisfy all the people, and that will be difficult to say the least."

Members of the Governing Council were handpicked by the Coalition Authority last summer to reflect as broadly as possible Iraq's religious and ethnic composition.

But many Iraqis view the council as an illegitimate construct of the American occupation, filled with unknown names who lack political experience and heads of political parties.

"The council has no credibility with the Iraqi people," says Sadoun al-Dulame, general director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "Who says that the Iraqi people must accept their rules?"

Council members are well aware of the public's perception of them, says Mr. Kifay, and that has impeded progress in finalizing the interim constitution.

"One of the problems facing the council is that many members feel they do not have the right to change things in Iraq without being elected," he says.

Still, council members and coalition officials were clearly relieved at the completion of the interim constitution.

Even Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the council who has often been critical of the organization, is unusually optimistic.

"It went well today and in the future it will be better," he says. "The main thing is that we agreed on some fundamental important points. What happened [with the Shiite dispute] was an important lesson for us all."

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