- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite Muslim cleric has written to the United Nations, saying a U.S.-backed interim constitution is a recipe for the breakup of Iraq, according to a statement released yesterday.

Gunmen, meanwhile, killed two Finnish businessmen as they drove in Baghdad yesterday, the latest foreign civilians to die in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion a year ago. In the southern city of Basra, 14 British troops were wounded in two explosions during a demonstration.

In a March 19 letter to top U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani said he would not participate in upcoming meetings with U.N. officials should the world body endorse the interim law.

“This constitution that gives the presidency in Iraq to a three-member council, a Kurd, a Sunni Arab and a Shi’ite Arab, enshrines sectarianism and ethnicity in the future political system in the country,” the Shi’ite leader’s letter said.

It said the presidential system of the constitution “will lead to a dead end and puts the country in an unstable situation and could lead to partition and division.”

The interim document stipulates that decisions by the three-man presidency must be unanimous.

Ayatollah al-Sistani said he would boycott the U.N. mission “unless the United Nations takes a clear stance that the constitution does not bind the [future Iraqi] National Assembly and is not mentioned in any new Security Council resolution concerning Iraq.”

The National Assembly is to be elected before the end of January 2005.

The Iraqi Governing Council signed the temporary constitution on March 8, setting out terms for the turnover of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis on June 30.

The charter enshrines Islam as one of the bases of law and outlines the shape of a parliament and a three-member presidency, as well as a federal structure for the country. Billed as the most progressive in the Arab world, it will remain in effect until a permanent constitution is approved in late 2005.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week that he was sending a U.N. team, headed by Mr. Brahimi, back to Iraq “as soon as possible” in response to an Iraqi request for help in organizing the political transition and general elections due by Jan. 31.

In west Baghdad, meanwhile, the two Finns were killed near a highway underpass in west Baghdad, according to Iraqi witnesses.

The two were part of a nine-member technological delegation visiting the Iraqi capital, said Markus Lyra, a Foreign Ministry official in Helsinki. “The men were on their way to the Ministry of Electricity to make business contacts as part of a larger group,” he said.

The assailants fled, and there were no reports of arrests.

In Basra, British soldiers fired tear gas at about 500 unemployed Iraqi civilians protesting a failure to get jobs with the local customs police, the chief of Basra customs Col. Zafer Abdel-Nabi said.

Six civilians and 14 soldiers were injured when the crowd threw rocks, gasoline bombs and a grenade at troops, he said. A British Ministry of Defense spokesman said the soldiers — three of whom were seriously wounded — were evacuated to a nearby British military hospital.

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