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Iraq Council to try again to sign constitution
Updated: 2004-03-08 10:52

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council was to meet on Monday to sign an interim constitution crucial to U.S. plans to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis, after Shi'ite politicians withdrew their objections.

The signing of the constitution has been delayed twice -- first by bomb attacks on Shi'ites on Tuesday that killed at least 181 people, and then by last-minute doubts among Shi'ites that forced a high-profile ceremony on Friday to be abandoned.

Representatives of the five groups that backed out on Friday spent the weekend in the holy city of Najaf talking with top clerics including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields immense influence over Iraq's 60 percent Shi'ite majority.

They announced on Sunday that Sistani still had deep reservations about the document but had given them the go-ahead to sign it in the interests of advancing political transition. Under a U.S. timetable, an Iraqi government is to take over sovereignty on June 30 and elections are to be held by the end of January next year.

The Council was expected to convene at 10 a.m. (2 a.m. EST).

"We will sign the interim constitution on Monday as it stands," Mohammed Hussein Bahr al-Uloum, son and chief adviser of Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, told Reuters in Najaf on Sunday.

"We don't want the rest of the Council to fear that the Shi'ites want to demolish the whole process. We don't want them to fear that the Shi'ites are trying to control things."

The main point of dispute has been a clause in the constitution that may allow Iraq's Sunni Muslim Kurdish minority to veto a planned permanent constitution if it does not enshrine their right to autonomy in three northern provinces.

The Kurds, who have ruled three provinces of northern Iraq since wresting them from Saddam's control after the 1991 Gulf war, had said that if the clause was not included they would not sign, and the issue risked opening a new rift among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

Last week's bomb attacks on Shi'ites raised fears of sectarian strife with Sunni Muslims.


U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad are on high alert against any attempt by guerrillas to disrupt the signing of the constitution.

On Sunday evening, 10 rockets were fired at the headquarters of the U.S.-led administration in Baghdad, close to where the document is to be signed. There were no serious injuries, officials said.

Iraq's U.S. governor Paul Bremer said in interviews on U.S. television he was confident the signing would go ahead on Monday. "We've noted the statement by the current president of the Governing Council that they do intend to sign it," he said.

Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, who is the son of a senior Najaf cleric and sat in on the discussions in Najaf, said clerics were unhappy with the document but understood its importance.

"The religious authorities have made their position clear to the politicians, but don't want to interfere directly," Hakim told Reuters. "They have deep reservations, but also know this interim constitution is a step in the right direction."

Others present said Sistani would have liked to push for changes, but felt the furthest he could go was to make his objections clear and leave it up to the politicians to do what they felt necessary.

Sistani, a 73-year-old Iranian-born religious scholar, has increasingly exerted his influence on politics in recent months.

He has expressed objections to the U.S. timetable for handing back power, forcing the Americans to bring forward planned elections. Sistani was also strongly against giving the Kurds veto power over a permanent constitution.

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