A spokesman for one of the Shiite parties said no signing would take place before Monday, giving time for members to consult with Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani — who has already forced two major revisions in U.S. plans to transfer power to the Iraqis.
The maneuver by five Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council broke the unity that the body showed earlier this week when it overcame deep differences to unanimously agree on a draft of the charter. It also highlighted the power that al-Sistani wields over the political process because of his considerable influence over Iraq's Shiite majority.
Along with top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, council members negotiated in private in an attempt to resolve the Shiite objections. But seven hours after the ceremony had been set to take place, a coalition spokesman said no deal was reached Friday and gave no date for the signing to take place.
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The council's squabbles squandered an enormous public relations and security effort for the ceremony, a stinging embarrassment for the U.S.-led occupation authority and its hand-picked Governing Council. Earlier, Bremer had appeared on morning television shows in the United States, touting the constitution on CNN's "American Morning" as "an extraordinary document, which is really unprecedented in Iraq's history."
U.S. and Iraqi officials had planned an elaborate ceremony for the signing, full of symbols of Iraqi unity, that was left a shambles. A map of the country was emblazoned with the slogan "We all participate in the new Iraq." Twenty-five fountain pens, one for each member, were lined up on an antique desk belonging to King Feisal I, Iraq's first monarch.
Children wearing traditional costumes representing Iraq's main ethnic groups were brought in for the occasion. With the audience waiting for the signing to take place, the children went ahead on stage and sang a repertoire of patriotic songs.
At the same time, helicopters swarmed the skies around the convention center, scouting for would-be attackers.
The attacks never materialized, but the meeting was sabotaged anyway.
The Shiite objections focused on two clauses in the document: one that effectively gives the Kurds a veto over a permanent constitution due to be put to a referendum next year and another on the shape of the presidency in a future government, said Hamed al-Bayati, a senior official in one of the Shiite parties that balked at signing.
But by the end of the evening, the dispute seemed to have become broader. Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, one of the parties that balked at signing, said members had to deal with the issue of how "an unelected body can bind an elected body in the future." He did not elaborate.
Qanbar said the parties would have to consult with their leadership — and likely with al-Sistani as well. The council would meet again Monday, he said, adding that he hoped a signing would take place then.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the council, denounced the Shiites for "putting obstacles in front of the declaration."
The interim constitution, which will remain in effect until a permanent charter is drafted next year, is a crucial part of the U.S. plan for handing over power to the Iraqis on June 30. The Bush administration is eager to carry out the transfer well before the U.S. presidential elections in November.
The planned Friday signing was already six days past the date it was supposed to occur under the U.S. timetable. The Governing Council was unable to overcome sharp divisions by the Feb. 28 deadline, and finally agreed on a draft Monday only Bremer pushed them into marathon negotiations.
Then on Tuesday, suicide bombers struck Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and the city of Karbala, killing at least 181. The signing was put off for a three-day mourning period.
Al-Sistani appeared to be at the source of the last-minute Shiite complaints.
During negotiations last weekend to hammer out the charter, some council members complained that talks negotiations were complicated because Shiite members would agree on a point, then reverse themselves and revive the issue later after consulting with al-Sistani.
A source on the council said al-Sistani's objected to the clause in the agreed-upon charter that the Kurds had insisted on writing in to ensure that a permanent constitution, to be approved in a 2005 referendum, does not encroach on their self-rule region in the north.
The clause says that even if a majority of Iraqis support the permanent constitution, the referendum would fail if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces reject it. The Kurds control three provinces in the north.
"The marja'iya (al-Sistani's office) will not accept" the clause, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Some of these provinces have only 400,000 or 500,000 people. We cannot have that number of people rejecting a constitution for 25 million people," said al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Renegotiating the clause, however, could threaten Kurdish support for the charter.
"The constitution was agreed upon after serious negotiations, so no power can hamper it. Any attempt to break up this agreement will be damaging for Iraq's unity," said Sard Qadir, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which holds a seat on the Governing Council.
The council members that refused to sign were Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress — a close ally of the Pentagon — Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party, independent Shiite Mouwafak al-Rubaie and the current council president Shiite cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloum, al-Bayati said.
Another cause of dispute was the makeup of the presidency, al-Bayati said. The draft approved Monday set up a single president with two deputies. Al-Bayati said the Shiites were reviving their demand for a five-person rotating presidency.
Under that proposal, which was raised in the debate over the final accord, the presidency would rotate between three Shiites, a Kurd and a Sunni — giving the Shiites a dominant role.
Council spokesman al-Kafaie, however, denied that the presidency's shape was at issue.