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Bremer touts Iraqi constitution 100 days before handover of control

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As though answering the objections of Iraq's most prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, the top U.S. official in Iraq defended Iraq's 2-week-old, U.S.-nurtured interim constitution Wednesday.

In a broadcast speech marking 100 days until the United States returns control of Iraq to Iraqis, U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer didn't mention Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. His comments, however, clearly were aimed at objections to the interim constitution that Sistani raised this week.

"Nobody was completely satisfied with every article of the law," Bremer said. "But by working hard to find common ground, the members of the Governing Council taught all Iraqis that democracy works through peaceful compromise."

He congratulated the charter signers for "putting Iraq's interest ahead of their own personal interests. ... Democracy does not just entail majority rule, but protection of minority rights."

Sistani, a 73-year-old senior cleric who counts millions of Iraqis among his followers, has written to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, warning the United Nations not to endorse the constitution and objecting to a portion of it that might give the country's Kurdish minority a veto over a final constitution.

Religious leaders also dislike the charter because it says Islam should be a basis of law—not the only source of law—in this nation with a Christian minority and Muslims ranging from hard-line Shiites to cosmopolitan Sunnis who sidelined Islam during decades of Socialist-leaning, Baath Party rule.

"Without a legal structure to define the rules, elections could not be held. Without this framework, individual rights could not be guaranteed," Bremer said. He noted that "Islam enjoys a special place" in the charter, which respects other religions, as well.

Sistani has bedeviled U.S. plans for a new Iraqi government for months. An initial American plan that called for selecting a new government through a series of caucuses was scuttled after Sistani insisted on direct elections—a plan that would favor Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Sistani gave Shiite members of the Governing Council the go-ahead to sign the interim constitution March 8. Then this week, he released a copy of his letter to Brahimi warning against U.N. endorsement of the constitution. The United Nations is trying to help set up a system to hold elections early next year, as Sistani has demanded.

The cleric, who hasn't left his house in Najaf in six years, has refused to meet directly with U.S. officials, instead conveying his opinions through close associates.

Officially, Bremer hasn't yet commented publicly on Sistani's letter. But senior coalition officials were studying a translation of it Wednesday, wondering what was behind it and searching for wiggle room in the cleric's criticisms to keep the process on course.

"Obviously, we're very respectful of what the ayatollah says," a senior coalition official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official's comments suggested that Bremer and his inner circle didn't think the issue would go away.

As a carrot, Bremer reminded his audience that after June 30, his Coalition Provisional Authority would cease to exist, leaving behind American and other foreign troops as a stabilizing force and the largest U.S. Embassy in the world, administering $19 billion in reconstruction projects.

He recited a long list of coalition accomplishments—18,000 reconstruction projects, 100,000 newly vetted and recently trained Iraqi police officers and paramilitaries, a new Olympic team—then said there was much to be done before the United States returns Iraqi sovereignty.

Bremer will depart then, leaving behind more than 100,000 mostly American soldiers, an as-yet-unnamed interim Iraqi leadership and a plan to elect short-term leaders to write a national constitution that creates a permanent government structure. That government is to be elected by Dec. 15, 2005.

In other developments Wednesday:

_Bremer said he soon would announce the creation of a Defense Ministry along with senior Iraqi civil-service appointees to administer it. It's a key step in restoring the Iraqi army, which Bremer disbanded. He also is creating a Cabinet-level Iraqi National Security Committee in an effort to leave behind a military that has civilian control.

_The military said a U.S. convoy was ambushed, injuring two soldiers, hours after insurgents fired rockets before dawn at the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, where many American journalists and rebuilding contractors are staying. A rocket damaged floors six through eight, but caused no casualties.

_Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi declined to name the international firms that are being considered for a Saddam Hussein-era corruption probe. Chalabi said the council agreed to hire foreign legal and auditing firms to investigate allegations of corruption and misappropriation of funds in the U.N. oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell a share of its oil reserves to buy humanitarian supplies after the first Persian Gulf War. Congress also is looking into the allegations.

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

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