Iraq Interim Constitution Signed

Iraqi Governing Council after signing interim constitution, Baghdad, Iraq 2004/3/8
Iraq's Governing Council signed a landmark interim constitution Monday after resolving a political impasse sparked by objections from the country's most powerful cleric. The signing was a key step in U.S. plans to hand over power to the Iraqis by July 1.

Before an audience of prominent Iraqi and American civilian and military officials, including the top administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, the 25 council members signed the document on an antique desk once owned by King Faisal I, Iraq's first monarch.

Council president Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum called the signing a "historic moment, decisive in the history of Iraq."

"There is no doubt that this document will strengthen Iraqi unity in a way never seen before," said Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish leader on the council. "This is the first time that we Kurds feel that we are citizens of Iraq."

In other recent developments:

  • The father of Iraq's nuclear bomb program, speaking publicly for the first time since U.S. forces occupied Baghdad, called Monday for a U.N. probe of what nuclear inspectors knew before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Jafar Dhia Jafar, speaking during a discussion about the repercussions of the occupation of Iraq organized by the Beirut-based Center for Arab Unity Studies, said U.N. inspectors had "reached total conviction" that Iraq was free of nuclear weapons before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
  • About an hour before the signing ceremony began, insurgents fired mortar shells at two police stations in central Baghdad, injuring four people, including one policeman, Iraqi officials said. The attacks occurred as CBS News Anchor Dan Rather was interviewing Bremer at coalition headquarters.
  • During a campaign visit to Mississippi, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry accused President Bush of "stonewalling" separate inquiries into Nine-Eleven and prewar intelligence from Iraq. The Bush camp calls that an "inaccurate attack."
  • After a power struggle with the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon has won control over most of a $18.4 billion aid package for Iraq, and rebuilding delayed for a month will start this week, U.S. officials in Baghdad said Sunday.

    The signing came nine days after a deadline set in a U.S. timetable. The delay was caused by a mourning period following deadly bomb attacks on Shiite shrines, as well as political wrangling on the U.S.-picked council. The impasse strained relations between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders and highlighted the power of Iraq's Shiite clergy.

    The charter — which includes a 13-article bill of rights, enshrines Islam as one of the bases of law and outlines the shape of a parliament and presidency as well as a federal structure for the country. It will remain in effect until a permanent constitution is approved by a national referendum planned for late 2005.

    Iraqi and U.S. officials still must agree on a method to create the government that will take power on June 30 and serve until national elections due by Jan. 31 — a task that will likely need help from the United Nations.

    Monday's ceremony was a sign of unity after a similar ceremony planned for Friday fell apart when five of the council's 13 Shiite members refused to sign the document because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani objected to a key clause requested by the Kurds. The last-minute disruption embarrassed U.S. coalition officials and angered others on the council who saw as it as a Shiite attempt to grab more power.

    After urgent talks over the weekend, al-Sistani signaled to the five Shiite dissenters that he would not oppose the constitution despite his reservations, and the document was signed Monday without changes.

    "We must put the interests of our nation above all of our interests. The world is waiting and expecting us to work in the service of our nation," Bahr al-Ulloum told council members in a meeting Monday before the signing. The members then unanimously approved the document with a show of hands.

    Bremer will endorse the document in a separate letter congratulating the council members, who include 13 Shiites, five Kurds, five Sunni Arabs, a Christian and an ethnic Turk.

    Al-Sistani's opposition focused on a clause in the draft that gave Iraq's Kurdish minority the power to veto a permanent constitution even if the Shiite majority approved it in the referendum.

    The disputed clause in the draft said that the referendum on the permanent constitution would fail if two thirds of the population in any three provinces reject it — even if it gains a majority nationwide. The Kurds, who control Iraq's three northern provinces, wanted the clause to ensure that no charter could be passed that encroaches on their self-rule region in the north.

    Al-Sistani, however, said the clause gave a minority an unfair veto over the majority's will, Shiite officials said.

    The intervention by the powerful 75-year-old cleric angered Sunnis and Kurds, who refused to change the draft. Throughout negotiations on the charter in past weeks, some council members have complained that Shiites on the council repeatedly went back on agreements because of al-Sistani's opinions.

    "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 council member. "The majority must not be allowed to usurp the rights of others."

    The Shiites' decision Sunday to go ahead with signing the charter as is — even though al-Sistani still had reservations — appeared to be a recognition of the bitterness the dispute was raising among other members.