BAGHDAD -- Followers of Iraq's most revered cleric are circulating a petition condemning the country's interim constitution -- the blueprint for the fast-approaching handoff of power to an Iraqi government.
The petition, which is giving many Iraqis their first news of the interim constitution, is worded to play to many Iraqis' deepest fears. It describes the law as "a tragedy" that paves the way for the United States to dominate Iraq's future, encourages immoral behavior, and opens the door for Jews to take power.
The petition is being passed around Baghdad neighborhoods and colleges by men who say they will deliver the signatures to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a spiritual leader to millions of Shi'ite Muslims. Some Baghdad residents say they signed the petition for fear that they would otherwise be branded as collaborators.
"The law was made with the help of the occupying authorities, and we can see its stamp very clearly," says the two-page flier that accompanies the petition. "God only knows where it will lead us."
The petition is the latest challenge to the embattled plan for the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, which US officials have revised numerous times since November because of Sistani's objections.
The flier criticizes the law for installing an unelected government that will rule until January 2005, for permitting the Iraqi military to be commanded by a US-led multinational force, and for allowing a proposed permanent constitution to be scrapped if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject it -- effectively giving veto power to minority Kurds in the northern provinces.
The petition has rattled members of Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council, who approved the interim constitution March 8 and now worry that the grass-roots campaign will reach people sooner than the carefully orchestrated, high-security series of town meetings they have planned to educate Iraqis about the new law.
"It's unfortunate because first impressions are hard to correct," said Fareed Yasseen, a senior adviser to Adnan Pachachi, a Governing Council member whose staff played a leading role in drafting the law.
US officials have touted the interim constitution -- called the Transitional Administrative Law -- as the single biggest achievement in Iraq's political transformation, saying its bill of rights and its balance between majority and minority power are unprecedented in the Arab world. But Yasseen said the council and the US-led occupation authority have been "absolutely abysmal" at disseminating information to Iraqis.
"We must answer this," said Pachachi, who received the flier the same way other Baghdad residents did -- someone going from door to door dropped off one at his house in the neighborhood of Mansur. Brandishing the photocopied pages, he said they misrepresented the law -- exaggerating the powers of the unelected interim government, for example.
"This is just patent falsehood," he said.
But the law is being denounced through the religious and social networks where most Iraqis get their information. At Friday prayers last week in Sadr City, a crowded Shi'ite neighborhood, an imam told thousands of worshipers, "God will send anyone to hell who says they accept the interim constitution."
At his mosque near the holy city of Najaf, firebrand Shi'ite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr branded the law "a terrorist document" and called on the Governing Council to disband if it cannot revise the law, the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera reported.
Sistani's newest objections have overshadowed the arrival of United Nations technical advisers, who began work on Saturday helping the Governing Council design a caretaker government that is to assume power in less than 100 days, on June 30. US and Iraqi officials say the UN team's work is crucial to give the political transition some international legitimacy. But Sistani has threatened to oppose UN participation if its Security Council endorses the interim constitution.
Sistani's main objection is that the law places executive power in the hands of a president and two deputies -- presumably a Shi'ite Muslim Arab, a Sunni Muslim Arab, and a Kurd to represent the country's three main groups -- who must make unanimous decisions. In a March 11 letter to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Sistani said that structure could lead to deadlock and sectarian conflict. The letter, posted on Sistani's website, says the law has little support among Iraqis, citing the "millions of signatures that have been collected."
It is unclear whether the 73-year-old cleric, who does not speak to reporters, is personally responsible for the Baghdad petition, which is more inflammatory in tone than many of his official statements. But by invoking his name, the people behind the petition -- who say they belong to various Shi'ite foundations and charities -- tap into the reverence for a man whose word is law to many Shi'ites.
A resident of the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora said a man collecting signatures there was the son of the Ba'ath Party member who kept an eye on the neighborhood under Saddam Hussein. Now the same man says he represents the Hawza, Iraq's network of Shi'ite religious schools. The resident, a Christian who asked not to be named, said he signed the petition out of fear.
So did another woman, also a Christian, who lives in the central neighborhood of Karada. "They said that my signature on this paper would prove my Iraqi nationality," she said. "For my family, I signed it."
The writers of the petition are not alone in objecting to the rules for adopting the permanent constitution, which allow a two-thirds' majority in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to reject the draft.
Pachachi and another Governing Council member, Mowafak Rubaie, said Thursday that the council might try to refine that provision as it drafts an appendix to design the as-yet-undetermined structure of the interim government. That is likely to cause yet another round of wrangling as the June 30 deadline nears.
Many of the contentions in the petition address disputes about fundamental questions facing Iraqi society, from the rights of minorities to the status of Islam and the nature of Iraqi identity.
Asked for his opinion about the Transitional Administrative Law, the Dora resident turned his hands skyward. "I don't really believe in anything," he said. "We are living in a jungle."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company