- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s leaders put aside their differences yesterday long enough to sign a temporary constitution that enshrines Islam as the state religion and gives sweeping rights to women and religious minorities that are unheard of in much of the Muslim world.

Shi’ites on the council, encouraged by an edict from the nation’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, said however that they will seek to change certain articles in the document in an “annex” that they hope to negotiate in coming months.

The 62-article document, which will guide the interim government that takes power on June 30, attempts to distill democratic principles that were developed over centuries in the West.

These include equality before the law, the separation of powers with checks and balances, the concept of private property and a broad list of rights including freedoms of speech, assembly, religious worship and the press.

At the same time it states: “No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in … this Law may be enacted during the transitional period.”

An elaborate signing ceremony involving an array of guests and songs by costumed children originally was scheduled for Friday but postponed until yesterday because of reservations by the Shi’ite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

The ayatollah relented over the weekend, allowing the signing to go ahead, but the ink was hardly dry when he issued a “fatwa,” or religious ruling, saying that the interim constitution “will not gain legitimacy except after it is endorsed by an elected national assembly.”

Ayatollah al-Sistani, whose Shi’ite followers make up about 60 percent of the population, was particularly concerned about provisions that will give the Sunni and Kurdish minorities an effective veto during the drafting of a permanent constitution.

“This law places obstacles in the path of reaching a permanent constitution for the country that maintains its unity, the rights of its sons of all sects and ethnic backgrounds,” he said in a posting on his Web site.

Council member Ibrahim al-Jaafari read a statement from 12 of the 13 Shi’ite council members saying they had gone ahead with the signing to maintain national unity.

“We say here our decision to sign the document is pegged to reservations,” the statement said. “In reality, we had a choice between delaying the constitution or dealing with our reservations … in an annex” to be negotiated in the next two or three months.

The edict took some of the gloss off the signing, which the current council president, Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, called a “decisive moment” in the nation’s history.

“Our freedom-seeking people have paid with their lives at the hands of evil forces that are trying to obstruct a political solution that has put an end to the tyrant Saddam Hussein,” said Mr. al-Ulloum, a Shi’ite cleric from the holy city of Najaf.

In Washington, President Bush praised the signing as “a historic milestone in the Iraqi people’s long journey from tyranny and violence to liberty and peace.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a group celebrating International Women’s Day: “Read what it says, and you will see the vision the Iraqi people have for themselves. And let there be no doubt in anyone’s minds that it is a bright future.”

The constitution is to take effect on June 30, when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority hands power over to an interim Iraqi government, and will remain in effect until a permanent constitution is drafted by an elected assembly, sometime in 2005.

Twenty-one of the 25 council members attended the ceremony, signing on an antique desk once used by Iraqi King Faisal I to ink an agreement with the British. Deputies for the four other members also signed, as chief coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer and invited guests looked on.

The constitution establishes three branches of government: a legislative assembly, a judiciary appointed by a panel that is to be chosen by the legislature and an executive branch that splits power between a three-person presidency and a Cabinet of ministers.

The ministers control the military while the presidency — consisting of a president and two deputy presidents — has the power to veto laws.

The document also legitimizes the existing Kurdish National Assembly, which governs much of northern Iraq and lets the Kurds maintain their police and internal security forces.

In one predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, crowds who gathered around a visiting American reporter and photographer had kind things to say about the Americans for ridding the country of Saddam. But they also expressed skepticism about the U.S. role in drafting the document.

“Americans did their job very well, but now we want them to leave. We can control the situation ourselves,” said Buthayna Ali, a housewife in her 30s.

Kanan Jalil said the Americans played too great a role in drafting the constitution.

“The Americans put down green lines and red lines for these members [of the Governing Council] not to cross. If this is a democracy, it still seems like something that is being imposed on us,” said Mr. Jalil, a shopkeeper.

Maya Alleruzzo contributed to this report.

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