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Iraqi constitution delay frays relations
( 2003-11-11 15:18) (Agencies)

Delays in drafting a new constitution, a key part of Washington's political blueprint for Iraq, are fraying relations between the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi interim leadership.

Some American officials believe key members of the 25-seat Iraqi Governing Council are stalling in hopes of winning concessions from American politicians eager to turn power over to the Iraqis quickly.

Civil administrator L. Paul Bremer has so far held firm against suggestions by some council members that the political process he has charted a seven-step program that concludes with a democratically elected government in place by the end of 2004 should be set aside.

Instead, some council members, who were appointed by the coalition in July, are pressing for full sovereign powers as a provisional government, with the United States handing over responsibility for security to an Iraqi-led paramilitary force composed of private militias.

Bremer, however, will only hand over power to an elected government after a constitution is in place to ensure Iraq's future, said a coalition official closely involved in the process.

Although coalition officials publicly stand by the council, in private some express increasing dissatisfaction with its performance. They complain the council is too slow to act on important issues, many prominent members do not attend meetings regularly and they do not spend enough time overseeing Cabinet ministries.

Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite Muslim member of the Governing Council and a longtime human rights activist, angrily rejected criticism of the council's performance. The issues facing the council, he said, are complex and decision-making is difficult because of its diverse makeup: 13 Shiites, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Christian and one Turkman.

"We need to negotiate and have a dialogue to reach a decision," he told The Associated Press. "And when we do that, then we shall have to talk with our (coalition) partners, differ, negotiate and compromise with them."

Drafting a constitution is among the most critical issues facing the council, and the outcome will have a profound effect on relations between the Iraqi interim leadership and the American-run coalition.

Under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month, the Iraqis must submit a timetable for drafting the new constitution and holding national elections by Dec. 15.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that meeting the Dec. 15 deadline is Bremer's main focus. "We're working closely with them right now," he said of the Governing Council.

With about five weeks remaining, the council has not even decided on a method for choosing delegates to a constitutional convention.

The delay is due in large part to the factious nature of Iraqi society.

The five Kurdish members of the council, for example, want assurances that any new constitution would enshrine Kurdish rights to autonomy in their northern homeland. Minority Sunni Muslims, once the dominant political force in Iraq, resent the influence of Iraq's Shiite majority and what the Sunnis see as the excessive attention paid to their rivals by the Americans.

A committee set up by the council in August to study the delegate selection process submitted three recommendations in late September:

_ For the Governing Council to choose the delegates;

_ For the delegates to be selected by a nationwide general election;

_ For committees in each of the 18 provinces to invite constitutional experts, tribal leaders, prominent businessmen and academics to choose delegates from among themselves. Each province would then send delegates based on its percentage of the national population.

A coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bremer favors the third option, which is referred to here as a "partial election." But Bremer is meeting resistance from council members who insist on a general election.

The biggest obstacle facing Bremer is to persuade Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali Hussein al-Sistani, to accept the partial election option. Last summer, al-Sistani issued an edict insisting delegates to a constitutional convention must be chosen in a nationwide general election.

Bremer has sent several emissaries to al-Sistani, who lives in the holy city of Najaf, but they have failed to change the cleric's mind, the official said.

Since Shiites form about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, their nominees would probably fare best in a general election. On the other hand, any system for choosing delegates must win the approval of Shiite leaders if the constitution is to gain acceptance by the Iraqi people.

However, coalition officials believe it will take up to 18 months to organize and hold a national election, then draft the constitution and submit it to a referendum for approval. U.S. officials are pushing for an accelerated schedule.

Some Iraqi council members appear to hope pressure will mount on Bremer to get the process moving and that he may then accept another formula for choosing delegates.

That pressure has increased as attacks against U.S. troops accelerated in the past six weeks. The mounting insurgency has raised the possibility a chaotic Iraq, without a stable government and without any sign of a speedy end to the fighting, could influence next year's presidential election in the United States.

If the Iraqis can finish a constitution by then and elect a government, the United States can claim it has reached its goal of turning stewardship of the country over to a democratic leadership.

 
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