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Iraq constitution talks to resume Monday

Shiites on council raised last-minute concerns, sources say

The desk where Iraq's interim constitution was to have been signed Friday is vacant after the signing was postponed.
The desk where Iraq's interim constitution was to have been signed Friday is vacant after the signing was postponed.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi Governing Council members adjourned negotiations over an interim constitution late Friday and will resume talks Monday, a council spokesman said.

The announcement brought to a close a day that began with a planned party for a new legal framework and ended in quiet disarray for the frustrated lawmakers.

The 25-member body had gathered amid great hoopla Friday afternoon to sign the historic transitional constitution.

But after Shiite members raised last-minute reservations about a section of the document, the trumpeted, elaborate signing ceremony had to be put off -- to the surprise of citizens, reporters, officials, and TV viewers waiting for the event to take place.

The adjournment announcement came about eight hours after the ceremony was delayed by Shiite concerns over how the transitional document spells out veto procedures that would apply when the permanent constitution is presented for approval. Shiites felt those procedures gave too much power to the Kurds.

A short time later, the council released a statement saying, "There is widespread consensus among governing council members on the law. But in the past few days a constructive dialogue took place regarding an important sensitive issue.

"Since in the new democratic Iraq there are valuable opportunities to exchange views to reach agreement in a democratic climate, the governing council has decided to adjourn its sessions for two days to complete the members' dialogue on that issue.

"The council will reconvene on Monday, March 8, to finalize the issue and sign the law."

Shiite council members objected to a clause that says if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject the permanent constitution -- which is to be drawn up in coming months -- it will not go into effect until it is revised, said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the governing council.

That provision would appear to benefit the Kurds because their self-rule area includes three provinces in northern Iraq.

Shiites, who represent about 60 percent of the nation's population, have been concerned about maintaining their political power, religious freedom and security. They were persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni Muslim.

Political sources said that reservations emerged after some members consulted with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq.

Governing council representatives said the members who raised objections are Ahmed Chalabi, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Mouwafak al-Rabii and Mohammed Baher al-Alum, the current council president.

Othman said he thought the issues could have been worked out before Friday.

"They should have raised this point a few days ago, not in the last minute," he said. "And all of us, everybody is working for this. So the way they put it is not right, and we think a minority shouldn't try to impose its will on a majority. That's our point of view, and I want it to be public."

The agreement over the transitional constitution missed its Saturday deadline set down in the November 15 handover plan, but council members worked around the clock and approved the document early Monday.

The signing ceremony was originally to take place Wednesday but was delayed for three days during a mourning period for the 181 people killed in the deadly bombings Tuesday in Baghdad and Karbala. The well-coordinated attacks took place when streets were packed with Shiite Muslim pilgrims marking Ashura, the holiest day of the year for Shiites. (Full story)

Stage set for signing

At the convention center in Baghdad on Friday, 25 fountain pens were lined up on the desk for the signing, one for each council member. A banner on the wall behind the desk contained the outline of the country and the Arabic for "We all participate in the new Iraq."

A few governing council members were scheduled to make speeches before the document was signed on a desk once used by King Faisal I, who led Iraq when the country became independent in 1932.

But people expecting to witness the ceremony ended up milling around for hours, and the day came to a close when an official, with the banner as his backdrop, told waiting reporters that they could go home, indicating that the talks were over for the night.

The document is intended to govern the nation until it can elect a legislative assembly to draft a permanent charter.

U.S. officials said they have been concerned insurgents or Saddam loyalists would try to disrupt the signing ceremony.

Baghdad International Airport came under mortar fire Friday afternoon, the Coalition Press Information Center said.

According to the coalition, six to eight 60 mm mortar rounds landed at the northern part of the airport. No injuries or damage were immediately reported.

The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division is based at the airport and is a frequent target of insurgents' fire.

Compromises in draft

The draft constitution recognizes Islam as one source of legislation, instead of as the sole source as some officials wanted. The draft states that no law will be passed that violates Islam's tenets, a spokesman for Chalabi said.

Federalism is a key issue among Kurds, who have essentially ruled a region in northern Iraq since the end of the Persian Gulf War and don't want to lose their autonomy.

"The document explicitly states that Iraq will be governed through a federal system of government and refers to the Kurdistan regional government as the legitimate authority running the affairs of the Kurdistan region," said Bahram Saleh, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's region. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is one of the two main Kurdish parties.

Kurds, Shiites and others have said they want to maintain independent paramilitary organizations for security purposes. But a federal military system would demand all armed forces be under the central government.

Although the transitional law sets a target of 25 percent of the legislature's seats for women, the London-based Human Rights Watch said the document fails to protect women adequately, particularly in family law. The group read a draft of the interim law.

"Equal rights for Iraqi women in marriage, inheritance and their children's citizenship should not be left in jeopardy," LaShawn Jefferson, director of the group's women's rights division, said in a statement. "The interim constitution should explicitly guarantee these rights.

"The interim constitution will be the starting point for drafting a permanent Iraqi constitution," Jefferson said. "If a goal is to ensure that women's rights are given equal status and protection, the constitutional process in Iraq has gotten off to a weak start."

The United States plans to transfer power to an Iraqi transitional government June 30, according to officials.

Senior coalition officials said they have started to lay the groundwork for elections in 2005 for a permanent government.

CNN's Jane Arraf contributed to this report.

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