BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's Governing Council signed a landmark interim constitution on Monday, creating a 13-article bill of rights, setting up an outline for the parliament and presidency and enshrining Islam as one of the bases of law.
Nine days after the deadline set in the U.S. timetable, council members unanimously approved the charter with a show of hands.
Council President Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum (search) called the signing a "historic moment, decisive in the history of Iraq."
"There is no doubt that this document will strengthen Iraqi unity in a way never seen before," said Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish leader on the council. "This is the first time that we Kurds feel that we are citizens of Iraq."
The interim constitution is a key step in U.S. plans to hand over power to Iraqis by July 1.
Before an audience of prominent Iraqi and American civilian and military officials, including the top administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer (search), the 25 council members signed with commemorative pens the document on an antique desk once owned by King Faisal I, Iraq's first monarch.
• Raw Data: Iraqi Constitution
• Fast Facts: Rights Guaranteed by Iraqi Constitution
The signing was delayed after a political impasse sparked by objections from the country's most powerful cleric, and there were signs that those problems might resurface.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search), who earlier led objections to the document, issued a religious decree just hours after the signing that said he still objected to the charter.
He maintained that the constitution would be illegitimate until approved by an elected body.
"Any law prepared for the transitional period will not gain legitimacy except after it is endorsed by an elected national assembly," al-Sistani said in the fatwa released on his Web site.
Council member Ibrahim al-Jaafari read a statement signed by 12 of the 13 Shiite council members that said they agreed to sign the interim constitution without demanding changes in order to safeguard national unity. Last week, bombers carried out deadly attacks on Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala.
"We say here our decision to sign the document is pegged to reservations," al-Jaafarai said.
Al-Sistani objected to a key clause requested by the Kurds. The last-minute disruption embarrassed U.S. coalition officials and angered other council members who thought it was a Shiite attempt to grab more power.
After heated talks over the weekend, al-Sistani signaled to the five Shiite dissenters that he would not oppose the constitution despite his reservations, and the document was signed Monday without changes.
"We must put the interests of our nation above all of our interests. The world is waiting and expecting us to work in the service of our nation," Bahr al-Ulloum told council members before the signing.
The impasse strained relations between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders and highlighted the power of Iraq's Shiite clergy.
The charter includes a 13-article bill of rights, enshrines Islam as one of the bases of law and outlines the shape of a parliament and presidency as well as a federal structure for the country. It will remain in effect until a permanent constitution is approved by a national referendum planned for late 2005.
The Iraqis also disputed claims that they have been forced to adopt ways of the west in their constitution.
"Some may say that the Bill of Rights" were imposed by the West, said Adnan Pachachi (search), a senior member of the Governing Council. "These rights and values are not exclusively the property of the west … it is thus a beacon of light and hope for future generations."
About an hour before the signing ceremony began, insurgents fired mortar shells at two police stations in central Baghdad, injuring four people, including one policeman, Iraqi officials said.
Iraqi and U.S. officials still must agree on a method to create the government that will take power on June 30 and serve until national elections due by Jan. 31 — a task that will likely need help from the United Nations (search).
Bremer will endorse the document in a separate letter congratulating the council members, who include 13 Shiites, five Kurds, five Sunni Arabs, a Christian and an ethnic Turk.
Al-Sistani's opposition focused on a clause in the draft that gave Iraq's Kurdish minority the power to veto a permanent constitution, even if the Shiite majority approved it in the referendum.
The disputed clause in the draft said that the referendum on the permanent constitution would fail if two-thirds of the population in any three provinces reject it — even if it gains a majority nationwide. The Kurds, who control Iraq's three northern provinces, wanted the clause to ensure that no charter could be passed that encroaches on their self-rule region in the north.
Al-Sistani, however, said the clause gave a minority an unfair veto over the majority's will, Shiite officials said.
The intervention by the powerful 75-year-old cleric angered Sunnis and Kurds, who refused to change the draft. Throughout negotiations on the charter in past weeks, some council members have complained that Shiites on the council repeatedly went back on agreements because of al-Sistani's opinions.
"To say that the Shiite religious leadership is now meddling in politics is to understate the case," said senior politician Naseer Kamel al-Chaderchi, a Sunni Arab council member. "The majority must not be allowed to usurp the rights of others."
The Shiites' decision Sunday to go ahead with signing the charter as is — even though al-Sistani still had reservations — appeared to be a recognition of the bitterness the dispute was raising among other members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.