Iraq Council, With Reluctant Shiites, Signs Charter
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 8 — Iraq's leaders signed an interim constitution (in English | in Arabic) on Monday and agreed to embark on a common path toward democratic rule, but the celebratory mood was dampened by calls from the country's most powerful Shiite leaders to amend the new charter before it goes into force.
The signing ceremony for the interim constitution, delayed once because of terrorist attacks and again because of a political deadlock, unfolded without a hitch inside the fortified confines of the American compound. Each of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council signed it or had a representative do so.
The document, with its bill of rights and guarantees for women, was hailed by Iraqi and American leaders as a milestone in the project to implant a democracy here less than a year after Saddam Hussein was swept away.
But immediately after the ceremony ended, Shiite leaders, representing the country's largest group, brought forth sharp reservations that called into question the viability of the accord.
A leading Shiite member of the council, saying he spoke for 12 of the 13 Shiites on the council, read a statement saying they intended to amend key portions of the document that they considered undemocratic.
Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite council member, said the group had endorsed the interim constitution in order to preserve the unity of the country. But he made it clear that the Shiite leaders intended to rewrite portions of the constitution before June 30, when the Americans plan to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
"We say here, our decision to sign the document is pegged to reservations," Mr. Jafari said.
The main issue concerns the mechanism by which the permanent constitution is to be ratified. The Shiites object to a provision that they say grants the Kurds veto power over the permanent constitution, which is to be written after national elections are held.
The Shiites also object to language that bars changes in the document signed Monday, except with the approval of the government and the new national assembly, which is to be elected by Jan. 31, 2005.
The Shiites' objections were endorsed by the most powerful religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who released a religious decree later in the afternoon in which he declared that the charter would obstruct an agreement on a permanent constitution.
In his statement, Ayatollah Sistani said the interim constitution would lack legitimacy until it was approved by a democratically elected national assembly. Under the most favorable circumstances, that is not likely to happen until the end of the year.
"This law places obstacles in the path of reaching a permanent constitution for the country that maintains its unity, the rights of sons of all sects and ethnic backgrounds," Ayatollah Sistani's decree said.
Together, the reservations portend a shakier future for the interim constitution than American officials and some Iraqi leaders had hoped for.
Still, the immediate impact of the protest was not clear. The ayatollah, who has involved himself deeply in the talks on Iraq's future, did not actually denounce the interim constitution or call on his followers to reject it.
And whether the Shiite leaders could amend the interim constitution before it takes effect on June 30, when the Americans transfer sovereignty, seemed uncertain as well. The 12 who endorsed Mr. Jafari's statement form less than a majority of the 25-member council.
A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said additions to the interim constitution would likely be limited to the shape of the caretaker government that would take over on June 30. But Shiite leaders said they hoped to use that process to make the changes they sought.
The interim constitution exhibits many of the fundamental elements of a modern state: a bill of rights, which include freedom of speech, assembly and religion; civilian control over the military; and an elaborate system of checks and balances. The document declares Islam the official religion and yet only "a source" of legislation. It calls on lawmakers to devise an electoral system that would give women at least a quarter of the seats in the national assembly.
For 90 minutes on Monday, the mood was high, betraying nothing of the quarrels to come. The 25 Iraqi leaders, many of them scarred by wars and traumas past, gave their names to an expansive document that enshrines human rights and democratic rule as firmly as any constitution in the region.
"This is a great and historic day for Iraq," Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Governing Council, told the crowd that had gathered deep inside the protected confines of the American compound. "This is an Iraqi constitution, made by Iraqis. We have produced a document of which we can all be proud."
With that, the 25 leaders moved to an antique table once used by King Feisal, Iraqi's first monarch, signed the charter and stepped onto a raised platform. As the stage filled, the council stood as the embodiment of the extraordinarily diverse nation, patched together 83 years ago from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, that the interim constitution is meant to hold together.
Among the Iraqis stood Shiite and Sunni Muslims, ethnic Kurds, an Assyrian Christian, a Communist, a Turkmen, several former guerrilla fighters and a handful of survivors from Saddam Hussein's jails.
One of the most striking moments came when Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party and a guerrilla leader, switched from Arabic to Kurdish midway through his speech. By so doing, Mr. Barzani highlighted one of the principal compromises of the interim constitution: its enshrinement of Kurdish as an official language of the Iraqi state and its recognition of Kurdish identity.
Mr. Barzani recalled the sufferings of the Kurdish people, thousands of whom died by poison gas and other means under Mr. Hussein's dictatorship. And he saluted the fallen fighters of the pesh merga, the Kurdish guerrillas who helped topple Mr. Hussein and clear the way for a new Iraqi state.
"This constitution will make some of this sadness go away," Mr. Barzani said. "This is the first time we feel as Kurds that we are equal with others in this country, that we are not second-class citizens."
For all the political difficulties, American officials said, their gravest challenge lies in implanting new democratic institutions in a country tormented by violence.
Evidence of that challenge abounded Monday. As the signing ceremony began, guerrillas fired mortars at a Baghdad police station, wounding two policemen and three civilians. In Mosul, in the north, attackers opened fire on a car carrying two city council members, killing one and wounding another.
The ceremony in Baghdad opened with a moment of silence for the more than 180 people killed last Monday in a wave of attacks against Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala.
A senior American official here said again that the Bush administration was determined to hand over sovereignty on June 30, even though the violence was expected intensify.
"I think we are heading into a very dangerous time for terrorism, because the terrorists know that time is not on their side," the official said. "But we will make the deadline."