BAGHDAD - Shi'ite leaders warned on Tuesday that Iraq's new constitution could cause problems in the long term, with one senior cleric saying a clause on federalism had the potential to provoke civil war.
The U.S. appointed Governing Council signed the transitional law Monday after long negotiations and two postponements, in a ceremony hailed by Washington as a diplomatic victory and an important step toward a democratic and sovereign government.
But almost immediately after signing, several Shi'ite leaders said they were still unhappy with the law -- especially a clause they fear could give minority Kurds too much leverage -- and would seek to introduce changes further down the line.
SHI'ITE LEADERS WARN: CONSTITUTION COULD PROVOKE CIVIL WAR
A man rides a donkey cart past a poster of Iraq's most prominent Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, March 9, 2004 in the holy city of Najaf. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters
The criticism continued Tuesday. One of Iraq's foremost Shi'ite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Muddaresi, accused the U.S.-led coalition of willfully including the clause which majority Shi'ites see as a threat to their numeric dominance.
"The clause in the transitional law relating to federalism is tantamount to a time bomb which could cause a civil war in Iraq," he said in a statement.
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose objections to the constitution delayed its signing by three days, refused to endorse the law Monday, saying it was an obstacle to agreeing a permanent constitution next year.
Shi'ite politicians said they would respect the document they had signed, which they described as a major achievement, but stressed they would find ways in the future to undo the elements they were still unhappy with.
"We see grave flaws in this law and more must be done to deal with them in future," Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a council member and head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shi'ite party, said Tuesday.
"The law is a major achievement, and we don't want the political process to stop... We will work to deal with the problems."
The main clause Shi'ites object to is one they fear will enable Kurds to veto a permanent constitution to be written next year if it does not enshrine their demands for autonomy.
A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress said the party welcomed the law, but that if Shi'ite concerns were not resolved, the transition to democracy could reach a dead end.
"We have to say that 12 members of the Governing Council signed this law with reservations," Intifadh Qanbar told a news conference.
"(The problematic clauses) could clearly put Iraq into a vicious circle and make the transitional period infinite, and hamper efforts to draft a permanent constitution."
U.S. officials played down the dissent, saying the important thing was that the 25 council members Washington appointed had managed to reach a compromise.
"While difficult work remains to establish democracy in Iraq, today's signing is a critical step in that direction," President Bush said in a statement, and called the signing an "historic milestone."
While politics dominated the headlines, a series of attacks across the country underlined the insecurity still prevailing in Iraq, which for many Iraqis is of greater concern than the return of power or the time scale for elections.
A U.S. soldier was killed and another injured by a roadside bomb near Baquba, a town 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad. The death brought to 380 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action since the U.S. invaded Iraq.
In the northern city of Mosul, insurgents threw a grenade at government offices, injuring seven Iraqis in an attack apparently aimed at U.S. soldiers inside the building, police and witnesses said.
Police in Mosul killed two attackers in a shootout in Mosul Monday night. Four policemen were injured, and a third attacker died later in hospital.
Also Monday, three people were killed in Kirkuk, hit by stray bullets as Kurds in the city celebrated the signing of a constitution which enshrines their right to autonomy by shooting into the air and chanting "Long live Kurdistan."
Much remains to be done on the political side. No decision has been taken on who will govern Iraq when the United States hands over on June 30, effectively a caretaker government until a national assembly is elected within seven months.
Officials hope the United Nations will return to Iraq to help facilitate those negotiations.
Copyright © 2004, Reuters Ltd