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Shiite cleric to lead panel drafting Iraqi constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi legislators on Monday chose a Shiite Muslim cleric to lead the drafting of Iraq's permanent constitution, a thorny process that could extend beyond a mid-August deadline because of ethnic and sectarian bickering.

The constitutional committee has three months to hammer out a set of laws acceptable to all of Iraq's diverse religious and ethnic groups. Among the most daunting obstacles are how to incorporate Islamic law and how much autonomy should be given to the country's influential Kurdish minority.

Sheik Homam Hamoodi, a relatively moderate cleric from the dominant Shiite political alliance, was named chairman of the constitutional committee under an agreement that put a prominent Kurd, Fuad Masoum, in the vice chairman slot. Both men vowed Monday to reach out to Sunni Arabs, who have only two representatives on the 55-member committee. They plan a series of conferences to tap the ideas of academics, technocrats and politicians from all backgrounds, they said.

"There's an awareness inside the committee to allow all Iraqis to participate, particularly the political groups in Sunni areas," Hamoodi told reporters after the Iraqi legislature's session Monday.

Hamoodi belongs to the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that dominates the new government and has 28 seats on the constitution committee, giving it a one-seat majority. Masoum is part of a Kurdish ticket that holds 15 seats. The remaining seats are divided among secular Shiites, Christians, Turkmens and Sunni Arabs.

Gaining Sunni participation could be key to making the constitution work.

"I met Sheik Homam six days ago and I gave him a list of 10 Sunni law professors that we want to participate with full membership on the committee," said Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al Samurraie of the government's Sunni Endowment, which looks after mosques. "We want these professors to participate in writing the constitution, and they should approve any article before it goes to a vote in the national assembly."

He added: "We have an alternative. If they don't let Sunnis participate, we'll reject the constitution."

The inevitable struggle in balancing conflicting demands could make the committee miss its Aug. 15 deadline to present a draft constitution to the public for a referendum, several legislators said. Some already are calling for a six-month extension of the deadline, which would delay the full national elections scheduled for December.

"Writing the constitution is important and we recognize that, but we can't be sure that we'll be able to write it by the deadline," said Abbas al Bayati, a Turkmen member of the constitutional committee. "We've already wasted time reserved for the writing process by negotiating over the committee."

Lawmakers opposed to Hamoodi as chairman worried that a cleric leading the process would send the wrong message about Iraq's future. Most political factions agree that Islam should be the official religion of Iraq, as it is throughout the region, but they're split on whether Islamic law should be the basis or an inspiration for the constitution. Doctrinal differences between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam could also be a source of contention.

Hamoodi, 53, comes from a well-known Shiite family with close ties to the ayatollahs in the southern holy city of Najaf. His early education was in psychology, but his graduate studies focused on Islamist economics, according to his official biography. His associates say Hamoodi was close to becoming an ayatollah, but instead he became a senior adviser to the leaders from his political party, the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hamoodi spent two years imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Masoum, the Kurdish vice chairman, was confident that Hamoodi's religious background doesn't mean the role of Islam will receive greater prominence in the constitution.

"I know he is not a fundamentalist," Masoum said in a telephone interview Monday.

Sheik Ghaith al Tamimi, a spokesman for the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the young cleric's followers wouldn't accept the constitution because they believe the process is being nudged along by American advisers.

"Even if they asked Muqtada al-Sadr himself to help draft the constitution, we'd still consider it incomplete and illegitimate as long as there is occupation," al Tamimi said.

Al-Sadr, whose populist movement has swept up thousands of impoverished Shiites, stepped out of seclusion last week to volunteer as an intermediary between warring Sunni and Shiite factions.


(Staff writer Nancy Youssef contributed from Baghdad. Special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Ahmed Mukhtar contributed.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.