Vote on Iraqi constitution delayed

Shiites, Kurds at odds over voting procedures

March 06, 2004|By Christine Spolar and Aamer Madhani | Christine Spolar and Aamer Madhani,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The planned signing of an interim constitution by the Iraqi Governing Council, heralded by the U.S.-led coalition as a key sign of democratic reform, foundered yesterday amid last-minute political maneuvers.

Behind the scenes, an influential Shiite Muslim cleric played a pivotal role in undermining the council's hard-won agreement on the interim law, unsettling U.S. plans for the turnover of sovereignty July 1.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani apparently succeeded in persuading Shiite Muslim members of the council that the constitution gave too much ground to the Kurdish minority.

By day's end, after hours of delay, the Shiites and Kurds were caught in a classic power struggle. The council meeting ended near midnight, and members decided to adjourn until Monday.

According to members interviewed last night, the 25-member council could not agree on voting procedures for a future permanent charter. The dispute centered on whether the voting rules should give any ethnic group the electoral heft to be able to veto the permanent constitution.

The cancellation of the signing was an embarrassment for the coalition and an indication of the challenges inherent in forging democracy in the former dictatorship. Hundreds of Iraqis who had shown up for the elaborately planned ceremony waited several hours before leaving.

Aides to coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer III attempted to play down the dispute as a "technical" problem. Early in the day, Bremer even appeared on U.S. morning television shows promoting the constitution's signing.

"Ninety-eight percent of the agreement still stands," spokesman Dan Senor told reporters as the delay lengthened into an awkward lost evening.

A six-piece band, intended to trumpet the signing, instead played to a dispirited crowd before the musicians packed their music stands and went home. A chorus of Iraqi schoolchildren was brought out to sing an Iraqi anthem, "My Land," and they warbled through the tune twice to fill time.

But as hope of a resolution died around 11:30 p.m. - about eight hours after the planned signing - the Governing Council abruptly called off a televised statement about the delay. An antique wooden desk once used by King Faisal I, Iraq's first monarch, was left waiting with 25 shiny golden pens untouched.

Governing Council members, reached by phone after the delay said that between five and eight members disputed the wording on the voting process and also attempted to change the presidency from a one-person job to a five-person body.

The voting rules appeared to be the main point of difference.

All those who raised objections were Shiite Muslims, including U.S.-backed Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress.

Several indicated they had consulted with al-Sistani after the approval Monday and before they raised their concerns, other members and their representatives said.

Under the interim constitution as it is now written, Iraqis would vote on a permanent constitution next year. A clause in the law says that if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the permanent charter, it will not go into effect.

The Kurds' self-rule region includes three provinces in the north. The voting rule would give them the power to block any charter, which they might do if their standards for self rule are not met.

Al-Sistani, who is not a member of the Governing Council, apparently objected to this arrangement. The cleric is highly influential among Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population.

Earlier this year, al-Sistani's repeated insistence on direct elections forced the U.S.-led coalition to give up its plan for a system of caucuses leading to an interim government.

Hamed al-Bayati, an adviser to one of the members who refused to sign, told the Associated Press that the Kurds had overstepped their bounds with the clause.

The Kurdish provinces should not be allowed so much power, he said.

"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.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yeserday, 550 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of Iraq military operations and 2,743 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when major combat operations ended, 412 have died.

Latest Identification

Army Spc. Michael R. Woodliff, 22, Port Charlotte, Fla.; died Tuesday in Baghdad when an explosive struck his convoy; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armor Division; Friedberg, Germany.

- Associated Press

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