Iraq Constitution Deal Reached

Debra and Chris Hall Hall Family

Iraq's most powerful cleric signaled to Shiite leaders that he won't object to an interim constitution, clearing the way for the charter to be signed Monday without changes.

The agreement, key to U.S. plans to hand power to Iraqis, comes after talks between Iraqi Governing Council members and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who had reservations about giving Iraq's Kurdish minority too much power.

Shiite politicians, who days earlier had refused to sign the constitution because of al-Sistani's opposition to certain clauses, said after talks with the cleric Sunday that they would sign the document unchanged.

In many ways, al-Sistani had no choice but to back down from those demands. Sunnis, Kurds and even other Shias on the council were already refusing to budge, reports CBS News Correspondent Charlie D'Agata.

Hours later, at least seven rockets exploded in central Baghdad, five of them hitting the al-Rasheed Hotel which houses members of the U.S.-led coalition. At least one person was injured, the U.S. military said.

The hotel also is near the Baghdad Convention Center, where Iraqi politicians had planned to sign the interim constitution on Friday. It was unclear whether the attack was an attempt to disrupt another signing ceremony.

Even if the charter is signed, the fallout from the political crisis remains. The squabble exacerbated sectarian tensions and reinforced fears of Shiite domination by the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities, politicians and observers said. Shiite politicians say they are motivated by a genuine concern to build Iraq's democracy on a sound basis.

"To say that the Shiite religious leadership is now meddling in politics is to understate the case," said senior politician Naseer Kamel al-Chaderchi, a Sunni Arab on Iraq's Governing Council. "The majority must not be allowed to usurp the rights of others."

The crisis over the constitution started when five of the council's 13 Shiite members balked at signing the draft they and the rest of the council had agreed to days earlier — scuttling an elaborate ceremony laid out Friday by the U.S.-led coalition and handing Washington an acute embarrassment.

Two days of intensive talks between the five and al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf resolved the impasse.

"Sistani has reservations, but it will not constitute an obstacle," said Mohammed Hussein Bahr al-Ulloum, who helped coordinate the talks on behalf of his father, council president Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum. "It will be signed as it was agreed upon before by the Governing Council members."

Top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer was more guarded.

"We're certainly hopeful that, as the president of the council said, we're going to sign it tomorrow," he said in a broadcast interview.

"A number of people who had been out of town have not yet come back, and I'm sure they will want to talk among themselves and talk to the other members of the governing council," Bremer said. "We'll have to see how that goes tomorrow."

Such uncertainties were not surprising, he said.

"You've got people in Iraq who have never experienced democracy, and they're wrestling with some of the big issues of democracy. Democracy's not just about majority rule — it is about protecting minority rights," Bremer said.

The adoption of an interim constitution is a key step in the U.S.-backed plan to hand power to the Iraqis on June 30, a date that the Bush administration is keen to keep during an election year in the United States.

The transfer will gradually bring Iraqis into a bigger role in the fight against insurgents, thus reducing U.S. casualties. The military reported Sunday the death of the 551st American soldier since the Iraq war broke out nearly a year ago.

Sources closely involved in the constitutional process said the fight over the constitution has poisoned relations between members of the main blocs on the U.S.-appointed council — whose 25 members are 13 Shiites, five Kurds, five Sunni Arabs, a Christian and an ethnic Turk — and eroded the goodwill between them.

"There is a strong feeling there now that the Shiites are pursuing policies aimed solely at protecting their own interests," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The disputed clause in the interim charter gives Kurds and Sunni Arabs — who together make up 30 to 40 percent of Iraq's 25 million people — the voting power to veto a permanent constitution.

Some Shiite leaders also said they wanted to change a clause providing for a single president and instead have a five-man leadership with three Shiites, one Sunni and one Kurd making decisions by a simple majority. The draft gives the president two deputies and stipulates the trio makes decisions by consensus.

The Shiites, as well as the Kurds, were brutally oppressed during Saddam Hussein's 23-year rule. His removal gave the Shiites hope that they can translate their favorable demographics into political power. The Kurds, Washington's closest Iraqi allies, saw Saddam's ouster as a chance to enshrine their 13-year-old autonomy in Kurdish regions in the north.

But the Shiites' pursuit of their goal — and the role of the Shiite clergy — have irked other Iraqis and enhanced divisions in a society already torn by political uncertainty, the absence of a strong central authority and deadly terror attacks.

Al-Sistani, a 75-year-old Iranian who moved to Iraq's holy Shiite city of Najaf more than 50 years ago, has emerged as the single most powerful leader in post-Saddam Iraq. His earlier objections to two U.S.-backed political blueprints for Iraq had forced Washington to drop them, something that has significantly contributed to his elevated standing among Shiites.

In Washington, American officials said a team of 50 Justice Department prosecutors, investigators and support staff will go to Iraq to assemble war crimes cases against Saddam Hussein and others in his former regime.

The officials will sift through thousands of pages of evidence and provide a roadmap for Iraqis to use when they bring Saddam and others regime officials before war crimes tribunals. U.S. officials want the world to view the trials as an Iraqi process, not one run by Americans or other foreigners.

The Governing Council has set up tribunals — three panels of five judges each, with nine other judges serving on an appeals panel — but a timetable for a trial remains unclear.

The potential charges against Saddam, who was captured by U.S. forces on Dec. 14, also remain unclear.

"Trying Saddam Hussein according to international legal rules and bringing him to justice will be difficult at best," says international law professor and CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, "but most important is that the tribunal be Iraqi, not perceived to be victor's justice by the U.S., and will need the experience of war crimes experts who have been involved in similar tribunals to avoid the pitfall of giving Hussein an international platform."
  • Joel Roberts

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