Iraqis Push to End Constitution Dispute

Shiite politicians consulted with Iraq's top cleric Saturday to resolve a dispute that wrecked the signing of an interim constitution. The head of the Iraqi Governing Council (search) said he thought the document would be signed Monday.

The council struggled to find compromise after five Shiite members refused at the last minute to sign the accord despite agreeing to it earlier in the week. That embarrassed U.S. administrators who had planned an elaborate signing ceremony Friday and touted the landmark constitution as a sign of Iraq's progress.

The Shiite reversal came after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search) rejected two clauses in the document — one that would have given Iraq's Kurds the power to scuttle a permanent charter, and another that would have provided for a single president rather than a rotating leadership.

Al-Sistani's ability to break the unity of the 25-member council was yet another illustration of his enormous influence in Iraqi politics.

The president of the council, who was among the members who balked at signing, said he expected the dispute to be resolved by Monday.

"We have announced that Monday is the date for the signing of the law and we are determined to stick to this date," Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloum told reporters in the holy Shiite city of Najaf (search).

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. It took intense negotiations last weekend, shepherded by the Americans, to overcome sharp divisions and reach a deal.

But just before Friday's signing, Shiite members of the council backed out because of al-Sistani's objections. Guests at the ceremony were left waiting for hours, watching children in traditional garb sing patriotic songs, until it was announced around midnight that the signing would not take place.

Al-Sistani's son, Hojatolislam Muhammad, shuttled back and forth between his father's home and al-Ulloum's office in Najaf, where the Shiite council members gathered Saturday.

Bahr al-Ulloum, also a cleric, said he expected to see al-Sistani later in the day. The grand ayatollah almost never leaves the small house he rents in an alley near the holy sites of Najaf.

"There is no dispute. We are determined to sign on Monday," said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, another of the Shiite council members.

But whatever compromise is worked out with al-Sistani must be agreed to by the other 20 members of the council. Some of them expressed anger Friday over the surprise Shiite move.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the council, said he was hopeful for a Monday signing. He invited al-Sistani to send a delegate to Baghdad to ensure a deal is reached. "If Sistani wants to a send a representative to the council, he can," he said.

Al-Sistani has twice before derailed U.S. plans with objections to the timetable and methods for transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government. The Bush administration wants to carry out the transfer well before November U.S. presidential elections.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the process was "democracy at work."

"This is an important document, an important document for the future of Iraq, a document that is being written and will have to be embraced by Iraqis," Ereli said.

The Shiite objections focused on two clauses in the interim constitution: one that effectively gives the Kurds a veto over a permanent constitution due to be put to a referendum next year and another on the shape of the presidency in a future government, said Hamed al-Bayati, a senior official in one of the Shiite parties.

By the end of the evening, the dispute seemed to have become broader. Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for council member Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, said members had to deal with the issue of how "an unelected body can bind an elected body in the future." Chalabi was one of those who balked at signing.

The disputed clause that Kurds got into the charter concerns a referendum planned for next year to approve a permanent constitution. The clause says that even if a majority of Iraqis support the permanent constitution, the referendum would fail if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces reject it.

The Kurds control three provinces in the north, enabling them to stop any constitution that encroaches on their self-rule. Al-Sistani objected to a minority having the power to block any charter approved by the Shiite majority.

Another cause of dispute was the makeup of the presidency. The draft approved earlier in the week set up a single president with two deputies. The Shiites were reviving their demand for a five-person rotating presidency.

Under that proposal, the presidency would rotate between three Shiites, a Kurd and a Sunni — giving the Shiites a dominant role.