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Shiites balk at signing interim constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A carefully crafted agreement on Iraq's interim constitution collapsed Friday after five Shiite Muslim members of the country's Governing Council lodged last-minute objections to some of its key provisions.

The deal's eleventh-hour collapse wrecked the U.S.-led coalition's plans for an upbeat signing ceremony that was to have been carried live, complete with a children's choir, on Arabic- and English-language news networks.

The dispute is over new demands by Iraq's majority Shiites to change previously agreed-on provisions that define minority rights and devise an interim government's executive branch. American and Iraqi politicians had hailed the interim constitution for including civil rights guarantees that are unprecedented in the Arab world. Officials called it a blueprint for Iraq's governance for years to come.

The extraordinary turn of events underscores the fragility of Iraq's political fabric four months before the coalition's self-imposed deadline for returning sovereignty to Iraqis. The main protagonists in the latest quarrel, the Shiites and the Kurds, joined the Bush administration in seeking Saddam Hussein's ouster but have been jockeying for power ever since.

In another embarrassment for the administration, even Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite and former exile who remains a favorite of officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, joined in the last-minute objections. Chalabi, who's unpopular in Iraqi polls, has been allying with the religious Shiites.

More than an hour after the signing was supposed to have happened Friday afternoon, a six-piece, formally attired orchestra hired for the occasion had stopped playing, and an antique desk that belonged to Iraq's first king, Faisal I, stood abandoned, 25 fountain pens sitting untouched atop it.

The chief spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Dan Senor, said the signing would be put off. Council members continued to negotiate.

"Democracy is sometimes a messy thing," Senor said.

Senor said the head of the coalition, L. Paul Bremer, was observing the negotiations, but wouldn't try to force an agreement.

The council supposedly had agreed to the accord unanimously Monday, and a signing ceremony Wednesday was postponed because of bombings Tuesday in Baghdad and Karbala, which killed more than 180 people, most of them Shiites.

The document establishes the structure of Iraq's transitional government—the one that will take power after Iraq's first election, which would occur by next January.

The Shiites on the council had second thoughts about some of the concessions they'd made. Specifically, Chalabi and four others decided they no longer could live with a provision that calls for the executive branch to consist of a single president and two deputies, Shiite political officials said.

The Shiites also had reservations about a clause the Kurds requested, which has to do with a planned nationwide referendum on Iraq's permanent constitution. The clause says that if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the permanent charter, it won't take effect.

That language is seen as giving the Kurds substantial leverage in negotiating a permanent constitution. The Kurds presumably would use that leverage to demand maximum autonomy for their three provinces in northern Iraq, and perhaps a large share of Iraq's oil revenues, as well.

Hamed al Bayati, an adviser with the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said on radio programs Friday that the Shiites were worried that the constitution as written would give the Kurds too much influence.

He also said that, instead of a single president, the Shiites were pushing for a five-member executive board that would include three Shiites. Short of that, they wanted the president to have greater power.

Shiites are the majority in Iraq, and they want governmental structures that will allow them to wield power. They fear any system that will allow Sunni Muslim Kurds and Sunni Arabs to ally against them.

In addition to Chalabi, the Governing Council members who balked Friday were independent Mouwafak al Rubaie, Abdel-Aziz al Hakim of the Supreme Council, Ibrahim al Jaafari of the moderate Islamist Dawa party and the current president of the council, Shiite cleric Muhammad Bahr al Ulloom.

Published reports Friday suggested that the defection had been ordered by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. The coalition spokesman declined to address Sistani's role.

The interim constitution, which won what officials called a consensus from the 25-member Governing Council at about 4:20 a.m. Monday, includes a Western-style bill of rights guaranteeing freedoms of religion, press, expression and assembly, officials said.

It sets out compromises on some of the most difficult issues dividing Iraqi society, including the role of women, the status of Islam and, to an extent, the level of autonomy given to the Kurds and other ethnic minorities.

The details of those compromises remain unclear because the document hasn't been released.

In a nod to Sistani, the constitution sets a speedy timetable for nationwide elections to name a legislature, setting Jan. 31, 2005, as the latest date for the vote.

Still to be determined is what kind of temporary government will take power when the coalition returns sovereignty June 30. That's to be worked out in the coming months with the help of U.N. experts.

After it was clear there would be no deal, photographers snapped pictures of the desk of King Faisal I, who was installed by the British in 1921 and ruled until his death in 1933. Above the desk was a map of the nation with the slogan, "We all participate in the new Iraq." Around it were some 300 chairs reserved for officials who had left hours before.

The 25 fountain pens remained, as if no one dared remove them.

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

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