Iraq Council Signs Delayed Interim Constitution

Iraq's Governing Council signed an interim constitution Monday after weeks of wrangling, in a key step toward a planned handover of sovereignty by U.S.-led occupying powers to Iraqis on June 30.

The signing took place at a hastily arranged ceremony in Baghdad after Shi'ite Muslim members of the 25-member council persuaded Iraq's foremost cleric at the weekend to go along with the document despite reservations.

Just before the signing, guerrillas fired mortars at a Baghdad police station, wounding three civilians and two policemen. Another missile hit a civilian house. Sunday, insurgents fired multiple rockets at the Baghdad headquarters of the U.S.-led administration but nobody was seriously hurt.

The signing had been delayed twice -- first by bomb attacks on Shi'ites last Tuesday that killed at least 181 people and then by last-minute Shi'ite reservations that forced a high-profile ceremony Friday to be abandoned.

Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the Governing Council, said at Monday's ceremony that the event was "a great and historic day for Iraq." Iraq's U.S. 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."

Representatives of the five Shi'ites who backed out on Friday spent the weekend in the holy city of Najaf talking with top clerics including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields immense influence over Iraq's 60 percent Shi'ite majority.

They announced Sunday that Sistani still had deep reservations about the document but had given them the go-ahead to sign it rather than appear as spoilers. Some indicated they hoped to undo some clauses in a permanent constitution to be drawn up next year.

"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."

Under a U.S. timetable, an Iraqi government is to take over sovereignty on June 30 and elections for a transitional assembly are to be held by the end of next January.


The main point at issue was a clause that could allow Iraq's minority Kurds to veto the permanent constitution if it fails to enshrine their right to autonomy in three northern provinces.

"I'm very happy with the outcome of the visit our brothers made to holy Najaf and their visit with the religious authorities," Governing Council member Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan told Reuters.

He said winning Sistani's approval for the signing was "a huge victory for the law, for the Iraqi people and their unity."

The signing reduced the risk of a damaging confrontation between Kurds and Shi'ites, and ensured that U.S. plans for the sovereignty transfer remain on schedule.

Sistani, a 73-year-old Iranian-born religious scholar, has increasingly exerted his influence on politics in recent months.

He had previously objected to the U.S. timetable for handing back power, forcing the Americans to bring forward planned elections.

U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad were on high alert against any attempt by guerrillas to disrupt the signing ceremony.

The document will guide Iraq's leaders until the permanent constitution, which will be put to a referendum next year.

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 recognition of the governments they established in the northern zone since 1991, as well as guarantees their militias would be the only military force there, not the central government's army.

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