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Disagreements Delay Signing Of Iraqi Constitution

Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The scheduled signing into law today of Iraq's interim constitution has been indefinitely delayed by the reported last-minute refusal of five members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to take part.

News reports say five Shi'a members of the IGC balked over what they said were too many concessions to Iraq's Kurdish minority. It is not immediately clear what specific objections the five members had to the wording of the interim constitution, which was reported fully agreed upon by the IGC earlier this week.

"After the mourning period is over, the transitional administrative law with the region's broadest guarantees of individual liberties will be signed."
The interim constitution -- which was to be made public for the first time at today's signing -- is said to establish federalism as the form of government for Iraq and to accept the current level of self-rule the Iraqi Kurds enjoy now. But it leaves the final degree of Kurdish autonomy to be established when a permanent constitution is written next year.

Reuters reports the five members opposed a clause dealing with a planned referendum on a permanent constitution due in 2005. The clause reportedly says that if three provinces vote against it by a two-thirds majority, they could veto it even if a majority of Iraqis approved it. Shi'as fear this could give minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds too much influence over the constitution.

The five dissenting members are also reported to be unhappy with the makeup of the presidency for the coming interim sovereign government, due to take power by 30 June. The interim constitution is said to provide for the coming government to have a shared presidency, plus a prime minister and cabinet.

The Associated Press reports that the best organized Shi'a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is among those refusing to sign the charter.

SCIRI adviser Hamed al-Bayati told the news agency that "there are some reservations" and that the IGC members are "trying to sort the problems out now." He did not elaborate.

The last-minute delay of the signing is certain to be seen as an embarrassment for both the IGC and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. The signing was originally due to take place on 3 March but was delayed until today following this week's bombing attacks in Baghdad and Karbala.

The temporary constitution is considered a key step toward preparing the way for Washington's scheduled handover of political power in Iraq on 30 June. The document is intended to establish the operating framework for Iraq's first post-Hussein sovereign government by binding it to respect freedom of speech and religion and to civilian control of the military.

U.S. officials have called the temporary constitution -- which is formally called the "transitional administrative law" -- the broadest guarantee of individual liberties in any state in the Middle East.

The top U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, described it this way on 3 March, when he announced that it would be signed today.

"After the mourning period is over, the transitional administrative law with the region's broadest guarantees of individual liberties will be signed. On 30 June, the coalition will hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Next year, there will be three elections ending in a directly elected sovereign Iraqi government," Bremer said.

The writing of the temporary constitution has been beset by numerous disagreements among the parties and individuals comprising the IGC.

Until today's last-minute difficulties, the most serious areas of disagreement had been over the role of Islamic law in Iraqi society and the future participation of women in government, as well as the degree of autonomy for Iraq's Kurdish population.

The interim constitution solved the debate over Islamic law -- or Shari'a -- by stating that it will be a source, but not the only source, of legislation.

The constitution is also reported to have met women's concerns by setting a goal of reserving 25 percent of the seats in a new national assembly for female delegates. The assembly -- which will draft the permanent constitution -- is to be elected by the end of January 2005.

Finally, Iraq's new "transitional administrative law" is reported to approve the U.S. military presence in the country. U.S. Army General John Abizaid, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Gulf region, said yesterday that the law contains a provision allowing U.S. commanders to retain control of all international and Iraqi forces for a period to be determined.