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Iraqi officials sign interim constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A twice-postponed signing ceremony for Iraq's interim constitution finally took place Monday, marking an important milestone in the U.S.-led coalition's plan to hand sovereignty to a transitional government by June 30.

The signing of the document was delayed because of last week's deadly terrorist attacks and again on Friday after an 11th-hour political dispute.

Hailed as a historic step on Iraq's path to democracy, the so-called "basic law" calls for elections by January 2005 for a transitional government that would write a permanent constitution. The interim constitution also sets civil rights guarantees that are unprecedented in the Arab world.

But discord on Monday raised questions about the permanence of the compromise. Just after the ceremony, Shiite members made clear that the dispute that derailed the previously scheduled signing remains unresolved.

Then, later in the day, a leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, issued a statement complaining that the law "places obstacles to arriving at a permanent constitution" that preserves "unity and the rights of its people, in all their ethnicities and sects."

Sistani's concerns, which center on a provision that would give the Kurds virtual veto power over the permanent constitution, were what caused five Shiite members to balk Friday, just before the signing was to take place. The five changed their minds Sunday after meetings with Sistani. But immediately after Monday's ceremony, leading Shiite member Ibrahim al Jaafari read a statement signed by 12 of the 13 Shiite council members saying they still had concerns and signed "in order to safeguard national unity."

Adel Abdul Mahdi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Shiites would seek to renegotiate a provision that the permanent constitution—to be written by an elected government next year—would fail if it's rejected by two-thirds of voters in any three provinces.

Shiites, who were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, make up a 60 percent majority in Iraq, and they envision a leading role in a future government for the first time in the country's history. Their last-minute refusal to go forward Friday infuriated the governing council's Sunni Arab and Kurdish members.

"To say that the Shiite religious leadership is now meddling in politics is to understate the case," said Naseer Kamel al Chaderchi, a Sunni Arab council member. "The majority must not be allowed to usurp the rights of others."

Governing Council member Abdel-Aziz al Hakim, a leading Shiite cleric, didn't attend Monday's ceremony. He was one of four council members—three of them Shiites—who sent deputies to sign in their stead.

The signing took place in a conference center inside the heavily guarded military compound known as the Green Zone. It was open only to journalists and invited dignitaries, who were screened by soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Shortly before the signing Monday, someone fired a rocket into a house in central Baghdad, but there were no casualties. On Sunday, a few hours after Shiite leaders announced they would sign the document, at least seven rockets exploded in the area around the conference center where the ceremony was to take place. A civilian contractor was wounded.

President Bush called the adoption of the interim constitution "a historic milestone in the Iraqi people's long journey from tyranny and violence to liberty and peace," but he added that "difficult work remains to establish democracy in Iraq."

The interim constitution lays out a blueprint for a transitional government, including a 275-member National Assembly that would be elected by January 2005. That elected government, to be run by a prime minister and headed by a three-person presidential council, would then write a permanent constitution.

The document leaves open the issue of what kind of "caretaker" government would take power from June 30 through the first election. That will be decided in the next few months, but coalition and Iraqi officials say current thinking calls for some expanded version of the existing governing council.

The temporary constitution says that the central government will control the armed forces, but it leaves room for a still-to-be-written law allowing a gradual disarming of Kurdish and Shiite militias. That could be one of the toughest issues in a newly sovereign Iraq.

The document also puts off the issue of what agreement will exist between a sovereign Iraq and coalition military forces. More than 100,000 troops are expected to remain in the country for at least another year.

The signing was preceded by speeches from three governing council members representing each of Iraq's three main factions. The Shiite, Mohammed Bahr al Ulloom, a cleric from Najaf, praised the constitution as a step toward the end of the U.S.-led occupation.

Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni, cited the section on fundamental rights—including the guarantees for freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion, and prohibitions on torture and other government abuses—as the most important.

Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, thanked President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and "the soldiers of the coalition who sacrificed their lives protecting the freedom of the Iraqi people."

The interim basic law is in some ways more expansive in its calls for individual rights than the U.S. Constitution. It includes an explicit right to privacy, something the American document lacks. It also affirms "the right to security, education, health care and social security."

Iraqis now are guaranteed none of those things. They live in one of the world's most violent and chaotic societies. Their hospitals are in shambles, their schools lack essential items and their social safety net is strained.

The civil rights provisions of the interim constitution don't apply to the relationship between Iraqis and coalition soldiers, who are exempt from local laws. The new constitution guarantees a right to a fair trial, but coalition forces have detained more than 10,000 Iraqis without charge, many of them bystanders swept up in raids.

"We have not legislated for the present, but we have put up a high standard so that the people in the future will always try to reach it," Pachachi said. "This is a beacon of life and hope for future generations."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040308 Iraq constitution

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