Saturday, March 6, 2004

BAGHDAD — Plans to sign an Iraqi interim constitution collapsed yesterday, with leaders of the majority Shi’ite Muslims demanding changes that would give them dominant control of Iraq’s presidency when the Americans hand over power June 30.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the top spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, voiced last-minute objections even as a band with singing children were all in place at the Baghdad Convention Center, along with 26 gold-tipped fountain pens on a desk used by Iraqi King Faisal I to sign an agreement with the British more than 80 years ago.

The 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which was to have signed the document with chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, said in a statement last night that a “sensitive issue” had come up and that the signing had been postponed until Monday.

“Since in the new democratic Iraq there are valuable opportunities to exchange views to reach agreement in a democratic climate, the Governing Council has decided to adjourn its sessions for two days to complete the members’ dialogue on that issue,” the council statement said.

Members of the council, who were appointed by the U.S. government, gave no other details. But sources said Shi’ite members of the council demanded a rotating five-member presidency, in which three seats would be held by Shi’ites, one by a Sunni Muslim and one by a Kurd — a formula that roughly reflects the ethnic and religious mix of Iraq’s 25 million people.

The original document called for a single president and two deputy presidents, to be chosen by a yet-to-be-decided Iraqi government that is to take over on June 30.

The delay came just two days after suicide bombers massacred more than 180 Shi’ite pilgrims in twin attacks in Karbala and Baghdad on the holiest day of the Shi’ite calendar.

In a new incident yesterday, four British soldiers were injured when they came under attack while patrolling a village in southeast Iraq, the British defense ministry said. The four were being treated at a military hospital in Basra and officials said the wounds were not considered life-threatening.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, who forced the delay, has no official role on the council but wields vast informal influence over its members. He has already forced major changes in coalition plans, including obtaining a pledge to hold nationwide elections no later than Jan. 31, 2005.

The ceremony was to have been a milestone for Iraq, with the convention center hall laid out in a made-for-television news event with dignitaries from Iraq’s diplomatic corps and other guests given front-row seating.

A troupe of Iraqi children representing the nation’s ethnic communities sang a series of patriotic songs for the seated audience in anticipation that the 25 council members would appear at any minute.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Bremer in an interview with CNN called the planned signing “an extraordinary document, which is really unprecedented in Iraq’s history.”

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said that the coalition was firm in its commitment to hand power over to an Iraqi government on June 30 and he sought to portray the delay as a positive step.

“If you want neat and tidy, there’s dictatorship. Democracy is messy,” Mr. Senor said.

“It’s messy whether it’s in Baghdad, Washington or London. It’s important for Iraqis to understand that they can raise these issues, have discussions like this. … It’s OK. Nobody’s going to wind up in a torture chamber or rape room or mass grave after the fact.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, briefing reporters in Washington, called the signing postponement “democracy in action.”

“The important thing is that Iraqi leaders are able to freely discuss these issues with one another and do so publicly,” he said.

In addition to changes in the presidency, the Shi’ites also objected to a provision that would give the Kurds, who control three of Iraq’s 18 provinces, a veto over the approval of a permanent constitution, slated to be put to a nationwide referendum sometime in 2005.

Non-Shi’ite members of the council said the objections to the constitution, produced after a lengthy, late-night bargaining session earlier this week, had surfaced just as the ceremony was to go forward.

“At the last minute, the very last minute, there was a switch by the Shi’ites and they objected strongly to a clause which says that if three provinces don’t agree on the constitution then it goes back [to parliament],” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the council, told the Reuters news agency.

“They consider that a provocation and the imposition of the will of the minority on the majority.”

Five council members refused to sign the document, said Hamed al-Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, the main Shi’ite political party.

They were: Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress — a close ally of the Pentagon before the war; Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council; Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa Party; independent Shi’ite Mouwafak al-Rubaie; and the current Council president, Shi’ite cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloum, Mr. al-Bayati told the Associated Press.

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