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Iraq: Governing Council Signs Interim Constitution

Prague, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Governing Council today signed into law an interim constitution that establishes the framework for a sovereign government due to take power by 30 June.

The interim constitution binds the coming government -- which will rule until national elections due sometime next year -- to respect freedom of speech and religion and to maintain civilian control of the military. These are fundamental guarantees of a civil society that were routinely ignored by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

The interim constitution provides for Islamic law -- or Shari'a -- to be one source for legislation in Iraq, but not the only source.

It sets a goal of reserving 25 percent of the seats in a transitional assembly for women. The assembly -- which will draft the permanent constitution -- is to be elected by the end of January 2005.

And it recognizes federalism as the system of government for Iraq and accepts the current level of self-rule enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds. However, the temporary document leaves unresolved the future degree of autonomy for the Kurdish areas -- as well as agreement on the borders of those areas. Those issues will be decided in the writing of the permanent constitution.

Today's signing of the interim constitution comes after the ceremony was postponed twice last week.

The document was originally due to be signed by the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council on 3 March. But the signing was postponed for three days of national mourning following bomb attacks against the Shi'a community in Baghdad and Karbala that killed at least 180 people early last week.

The signing was then again postponed due to reported last-minute reservations from pre-eminent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The cleric's reservations caused five Shi'a Council members to balk at accepting the deal already agreed upon by the full Governing Council.

Al-Sistani is reported to have been unhappy with a clause in the interim document specifying procedures by which Iraq's provinces can veto or accept the permanent constitution. The clause stipulates that the permanent constitution can be rejected if it is vetoed by three provinces. Shi'a clerical leaders are said to have worried that would give Iraqi Kurds, who control three provinces, disproportionate influence in determining the future terms of the constitution.

But those objections appear to have been abandoned in the interest of signing the document today in a show of national unity. The veto provisions specified in the original draft of the interim constitution have now become law as originally agreed.

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.

U.S. officials have called the temporary constitution -- whose formal name is 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 last week: "The transitional administrative law with the region's broadest guarantees of individual liberties will be signed. On June 30th, 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."

Iraq's interim constitution 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 last week 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.