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Iraqi Constitution Is Signed Despite Shiite Reservations

By Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

Iraq’s leaders signed an interim constitution on Monday and agreed to embark on a common path toward democratic rule, but the celebratory mood was marred 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 the regime of Saddam Hussein was swept away.

Yet 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 Jafari made it clear that the Shiite leaders intended to the 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,” Jafari said.

The main issue concerns the mechanism by which the permanent constitution is to be ratified. The Shiites object to a provision in the interim constitution that they say grants the Kurds veto power over the permanent constitution, which is supposed to be written after elections are held this year or next.

The Shiites also object to language that bars changes in the document signed Monday, except with the approval of the government and national assembly, to be elected by January 2005.

The objections of the Shiite politicians received the endorsement of the country’s most powerful religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who released a fatwa later in the afternoon in which he declared that the charter would create obstacles to an agreement a permanent constitution.

In his statement, al-Sistani said that 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,” al-Sistani’s fatwa 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 less than clear. The ayatollah, who has involved himself deeply in negotiations over the country’s future, did not denounce the interim constitution or call on his followers to reject it.