- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

From combined dispatches

NAJAF, Iraq — Shi’ite members of the Iraqi Governing Council conferred with the country’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, yesterday to resolve a dispute that has held up the signing of an interim constitution.

Governing Council members hope to sign the constitution tomorrow, but need the approval of Ayatollah al-Sistani, 73, a reclusive cleric who wields immense influence over the country’s 60 percent Shi’ite majority.

Last-minute objections from the ayatollah — mainly over the presidency and a plan for Kurdish autonomy — forced the cancellation of the constitution signing ceremony Friday.

“I hope and I pray that we will be able to sign this historic document on Monday morning,” Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a leading Shi’ite member of the council, told Reuters news agency in Najaf yesterday after a day of talks with clerics and the ayatollah’s aides.

He said the Shi’ite delegation from the council would stay in the holy city until tomorrow morning if necessary to try to reach an agreement before returning to Baghdad. The council is due to convene in the Iraqi capital at 10 a.m. tomorrow to resolve the dispute and sign the constitution.

Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, a Shi’ite who is the current head of the council, said he was “sure that any objections can be resolved.”

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s son, Mohammed, shuttled back and forth between his father’s home and Mr. Bahr al-Ulloum’s office in Najaf, where the Shi’ite council members gathered yesterday.

With negotiations reopened, a Kurdish official said his side would not consent to changing the clause, which was agreed to by the entire council when it approved the constitution last Monday after several days of intense debate.

In other developments yesterday, U.S. soldiers opened fire on a truck packed with explosives, killing the driver, and three Americans were wounded when the truck crashed on a bridge and exploded.

The apparent vehicle-bomb attack was in Habaniyah, west of Baghdad. In Amarah, seven British soldiers were wounded in a three-hour firefight with unknown attackers in southern Iraq, coalition officials said. Three Iraqis were killed, British officials said.

The interim constitution, which will remain in effect until the end of 2005 after a permanent charter is approved, is a crucial part of a U.S. plan for handing over power to the Iraqis on June 30.

The Shi’ites opposed a clause that Kurds got into the charter concerning a referendum planned for next year to approve the permanent constitution. The clause says that even if a majority of Iraqis support the permanent constitution, the referendum would fail if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces reject it.

The Kurds control three provinces in the north, allowing them to stop any constitution that encroaches on their self-rule.

Several officials said another cause of dispute was the makeup of the presidency. The draft approved earlier in the week set up a single president with two deputies.

The Shi’ites revived their demand for a presidency that would rotate among three Shi’ites, a Kurd and a Sunni — giving the Shi’ites a dominant role. U.S. and some Iraqi officials, however, said the shape of the presidency was not in dispute.

Also yesterday, the army announced that the U.S. military closed an investigation into the January killings of four Iraqis whose deaths were blamed on American troops, saying it couldn’t find the culprits.

No one ever claimed responsibility for the Jan. 3 deaths of the Iraqis, among them a woman and a 7-year-old boy, who were killed by heavy machine gun fire on a taxi. The taxi driver, the sole survivor, blamed American troops.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush vowed to crush militants behind attacks last week that killed at least 181 persons in Baghdad and Kerbala. It was Mr. Bush’s first personal response to Tuesday’s bomb attacks on Shi’ite worshippers.

“Laura and I and the American people were filled with grief and anger at these terrible attacks of murder,” he said.

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