BAGHDAD, Iraq – Friday came and went without the highly anticipated signing of Iraq's interim constitution, delayed after five Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council (search) rejected concessions made to Kurds and the makeup of the presidency.
The council agreed to the accord unanimously earlier in the week, but Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search) rejected provisions put into the text at the request of the Kurds to protect their self-rule area in the north, said a source in the council. Signing is not expected before Monday, at the earliest.
"The marja'iya (al-Sistani's office) will not accept it," the source said.
Also in dispute was a clause outlining the shape of the presidency, a Shiite official said. The Shiites (search) were reviving a demand that would let them dominate the presidency, he said.
Council members went into an emergency meeting to try to resolve the differences several hours before a signing ceremony was to be held, said a coalition spokesman. Several hours past its scheduled time, the ceremony was still not held, and there was no immediate word on when it would take place.
"The Iraqi Governing Council raised some concerns within the last 24 hours," coalition spokesman Dan Senor told Fox News on Friday, noting that agreement has been reached on 98 percent of the documents.
"They're sitting around the table having a very civil discussion -- heated but civil. It takes some time, it's messy but they'll work through it."
He said the issues at hand are ones that originally didn't get a lot of attention. Senor, who used to work on Capitol Hill, said the process taking place in Iraq is much like that we see here in the U.S. government
"The day before a bill-signing there were always last-minute concerns and last-minute negotiations -- it's a part of democracy -- it's going on here and we think it's a good thing," Senor said. "The important thing here is, everybody showed up, they didn't walk out."
"We have to remember it took many years to get our Constitution signed and we're still debating it every day, whether its gay marriages or school prayer or whatever," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
The top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer (search), was observing the meeting but not participating, the spokesman said.
Part of the Handover Plan
The interim constitution, which will remain in effect until a permanent charter is drafted next year, is a crucial part of the U.S. plan for handing over power to the Iraqis on June 30. The Bush administration is eager to carry out the transfer well before the U.S. presidential elections in November.
The sharply divided Governing Council agreed on the draft early Monday -- three days past deadline -- only after Bremer pushed them into intensive marathon sessions to overcome their differences.
The delay highlights the power held by al-Sistani over American attempts to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis and end its occupation, which the Bush administration wants to accomplish well before the November presidential election. Opposition from al-Sistani has derailed U.S. plans twice in the past.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the council, denounced the Shiite maneuver as "just a matter of putting obstacles in front of the declaration."
"The way they put it is not right. The minority should not impose their will on the majority," he said in a television interview.
Hamed al-Bayati, an adviser to one of the Shiite parties that refused to sign, said the Shiites, in consultation with al-Sistani, were balking at signing because of two clauses in the draft that was agreed on.
One was sought by the Kurds to ensure that the eventual permanent constitution, to be put to a national referendum, does not encroach on their self-rule zone in the north. The clause says that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject the permanent charter, it will not go into effect. The Kurd self-rule region includes three provinces in the north.
"Some of these provinces have only 400,000 or 500,000 people. We cannot have that number of people rejecting a constitution for 25 million people," al-Bayati said.
A representative of al-Sistani reflected those concerns during a Friday sermon at Karbala's Imam Hussein shrine.
"There is one article that give a specific party the right to veto the permanent constitution if it fails to meet their demands and this a dangerous thing," Sheik Abdel-Mehdi al-Kerbalai told worshippers.
Democracy Is Messy
Another issue in dispute was the makeup of the presidency. The draft approved Monday set up a single president with two deputies. But al-Bayati said the Shiites were reviving their demand for a five-person rotating presidency.
Under that proposal, which was raised in the debate over the final accord, the presidency would rotate between three Shiites, a Kurd and a Sunni -- giving the Shiites a dominant role.
The council members that refused to sign were Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party, independent Shiite Mouwafak al-Rubaie and the current council president Shiite cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloom, al-Bayati said.
"It's a work in progress and at this point it's not entirely sure what it's going to be ... stay tuned," Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News on Friday.
"When you start a democracy, it's messy. Think about the beginning of our own country, think about all the compromises we had to strike … this is going to be a set of trials but bottom line I'm optimistic."
An elaborate signing ceremony was planned -- emphasizing Iraqi unity. A platform was set up before a map of the nation emblazoned with the slogan, "We all participate in the new Iraq."
Children dressed in traditional garb from all parts of Iraq sang patriotic songs. Twenty-five fountain pens, one for each member, were lined up on a wooden desk that once belonged to King Feisal I, Iraq's first monarch, at the Baghdad Convention Center at the heart of the U.S. occupation headquarters.
U.S. Apache and Blackhawk helicopters swarmed over the center and the nearby Tigris River and increased numbers of troops stood at checkpoints leading up to the venue.
Earlier Friday, militants fired mortar rounds at Baghdad International Airport, the U.S. military said. Two bombs also exploded on capital roads frequently used by U.S. troops, but no injuries were reported.
Fox News' Todd Connor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.