Shia cleric's revolt delays handover of power in Iraq

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The Independent Online

America's plans for the swift and smooth handover of power in Iraq suffered a potential set-back yesterday after the most powerful Shia cleric in the country rejected central parts of an interim constitution and delayed the signing of the charter.

America's plans for the swift and smooth handover of power in Iraq suffered a potential set-back yesterday after the most powerful Shia cleric in the country rejected central parts of an interim constitution and delayed the signing of the charter.

Five Shia members of the Iraqi Governing Council refused to sign the constitution after objecting to parts relating to Kurdish semi-autonomy in the north and the role of a president in the future Iraq.

The disagreement again underlines the power wielded in Iraq by Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. The 75-year-old cleric, who refuses to meet US officials, has twice derailed America's plans for the transfer of power. Yesterday's signing ceremony was postponed for several hours as council members tried to resolve the issues raised by the Shia dissenters.

Hours later the signing ceremony had still not started.

The main objections appear to focus on two clauses. The first, in effect, gives the Kurds a veto over a permanent constitution, due to be decided by a referendum next year. The other relates to a plan for a president with two deputies, whereas the objectors say they want a five-person rotating presidency.

The US-led allies said the objections were a "technical issue". A spokesman for the council, Hameed al-Kafaei, said members wanted to rephrase some language, but not the major issues. "They will be sorted out. There is no doubt," he said.

AyatollahSistani appears to have been the source of the last-minute objections. During discussions last weekend, some members complained that Shia members would agree on a point only to change their minds after consulting with the cleric.

The interim constitution will remain in effect until national elections are held - timetabled for next January.

The Bush administration has set the date for the handover of power to an Iraqi government as 30 June, a schedule it is determined to stick by, not least because it does not want it to interfere with President Bush's campaign for re-election.

Yesterday's planned signing was six days past the US deadline of 28 February. The Governing Councilagreed to a draft on Monday after pressure from the US chief administrator Paul Bremer.

Renegotiating the charter could threaten Kurdish support for it. Sard Qadir, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said: "The constitution was agreed after serious negotiations, so no power can hamper it. Any attempt to break up this agreement will be damaging for Iraq's unity."

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