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Iraqi leaders hail interim constitution; key issues remain

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's Governing Council celebrated its new interim constitution Monday as a historic, progressive document that guarantees civil rights while offering careful compromises on the ethnic and religious disputes that are roiling postwar society.

But Iraqi and American officials acknowledged that the agreement leaves key questions unanswered, including how Iraq will choose the temporary government that will take power when the U.S.-led coalition returns sovereignty June 30.

"This will be measured in the annals of history as a turning point in the relationship between the state and the citizens in this country and in the region," said governing council member Samir Mahmoud Sumaidy, speaking several hours after the council reached agreement early Monday.

Announcement of the agreement took place deep inside the Green Zone, a fortified compound protected by razor wire and machine guns that's off limits to most Iraqis. It's a reminder of the difficult security environment in which the constitution will take effect. Entrants to the compound had to walk through at least four U.S. military checkpoints and submit to three body searches.

The interim constitution, which won approval from the 25-member council at around 4:20 a.m. Monday, stands out in the Middle East because it includes a Western-style bill of rights that guarantees freedoms of religion, press, expression and assembly. It also makes Kurdish and Arabic official languages, and it sets out compromises on some of the most difficult issues dividing Iraqi society, including the role of women, the status of Islam and the level of autonomy for the Kurds and other ethnic minorities.

In a nod to Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, the powerful Shiite cleric, the constitution speeds up the timetable for elections, setting Jan. 31, 2005, as the latest date for a vote to choose a permanent Iraqi government. That elected government is to oversee the drafting of a permanent Iraqi Constitution.

But the document approved early Monday ignored the critical question of who'll be in the new government and how they'll be selected.

"That's what we're going to work on in the next few months," with the help of United Nations experts, said a senior coalition official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Under the original U.S.-backed plan, the temporary government was to be selected by caucuses. Now that leading Iraqis and U.N. experts have rejected that approach, it's back to the drawing board. But apparently no one had an idea good enough to win inclusion in the new interim constitution.

There are even thornier issues: Will Iraqis accept a blueprint that's hammered out in secret by an unelected group dominated by former exiles and handpicked by American and British officials? Will they accept the temporary government spawned by that document? And will that government be able to maintain stability and cohesion in this ethnic stewpot of a country long enough to hold a free and fair election?

Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni council member who played a key role in crafting the agreement, challenged a reporter's contention that the interim constitution was crafted in secret.

"I don't think it was closed," he said. "In fact, many of the issues were discussed in the media." He added that the council will seek public comment from Iraqis and can tinker with the agreement in the addendum that will be required to decide how to choose the government that takes power.

The debates about the temporary constitution did receive extensive coverage in Iraqi newspapers and on television.

There was speculation on Monday that crafting the constitution—and wringing concessions out of the U.S.-led coalition on matters such as the date of elections—could earn the unpopular governing council greater esteem among Iraqis.

"We were very impressed by the extent to which leaders at the table were communicating with their constituencies," the senior coalition official said. "You heard, `I can't go back to my street and sell this.' There was a real sense that these weren't just 25 people who happened to be handpicked by us."

The agreement was reached after days of haggling and several late-night sessions with U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and other coalition officials.

The council declined to release the text of the constitution on Monday, saying it wanted to wait until Wednesday, when it will be signed after the conclusion of an Islamic holiday.

According to coalition and Iraqi officials, the temporary constitution:

_Calls for the transitional government to be comprised of a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister who presides over an assembly.

_Calls for at least 25 percent of the seats in that assembly to be held by women _although that's a goal, not a quota.

_Says Islam will be "a source" for all legislation—not "the" source or a primary source—and forbids laws that contradict Islam. But "the language on Islam and the state effectively says that this won't compromise individual rights or democratic principles," a senior official said.

_Allows the Kurdish militia to continue, under the ultimate control of the central government. The details on how this will work weren't made clear.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.