Published on Tuesday, March 23, 2004 by the Agence France Presse
Blow to US Plans for Iraq Handover as 100-day Countdown Starts
BAGHDAD - The US-led coalition's plans for the handover of power to Iraqis were in disarray again after an influential cleric urged the United Nations to reject a new interim constitution, and security degenerated amid a fresh surge of attacks.
With just 100 days to the coalition's deadline for the transfer of sovereignty, UN officials were digesting a letter from the spiritual head of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threatening to cut off contacts with the world body if it endorsed the fundamental law.
In a letter to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is due to return to Iraq soon at the head of a delegation of experts, Sistani said he would refuse to meet the UN team if the Security Council passed any resolution endorsing the law.
Sistani "does not wish to be part of any meetings or deliberations with the UN mission unless the United Nations adopts a clear position saying that the fundamental law is not binding to the (Iraqi) National Assembly," his office wrote.
The letter demanded that the interim constitution not be mentioned in "any new UN Security Council resolution about Iraq."
Sistani "fears that the occupation authority would try to include this law in the new Security Council resolution, allowing it to gain international legitimacy that would be binding for the Iraqi people," it said.
The law is aimed at seeing Iraq through the transition to general elections under a permanent constitution by the end of January 2005.
Sistani expressed reservations about the document when it was signed by Iraqi leaders on March 8, but his letter marked a significant hardening of his position.
The United Nations withdrew from Iraq in October after its headquarters was hit by suicide bombings twice over the previous two months.
But at the request of the coalition and the interim leadership it installed last year, UN chief Kofi Annan agreed to send Brahimi and a team of experts back to Iraq to advise on the political transition.
Insurgent violence meanwhile continued around the country amid coalition warnings it would escalate as the handover deadline neared.
Gunmen killed two policemen and wounded two others in a dawn drive-by shooting in the northern oil city of Kirkuk and two rockets were fired at a nearby US base, Iraqi police said.
The deaths come a day after a suicide car bomb exploded outside a US military base north of Baghdad, killing one Iraqi paramilitary and wounding eight civilians.
On Monday, two Finnish businessmen were shot dead in Baghdad in an apparent attempt to scare off foreigner investors, while in the main southern city of Basra protests by unemployed people turned into riots that left 14 British soldiers wounded.
And in the flashpoint town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, a general strike was declared to mourn Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, assassinated in an Israeli air strike Monday.
Iraq's interim leadership warned the Israeli action could fuel attacks against coalition targets here, because of US support for the Jewish state.
Despite the continuing violence, Australia said Tuesday that it would consider keeping its troops in Iraq after the handover of sovereignty.
The announcement followed Spain's pledge to withdraw its troops by June 30 following the March 11 bombings in Madrid claimed by Islamists linked to the Al-Qaeda network who said they were targeting Spanish support for the US-led occupation.
Copyright © 2004 AFP