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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 14:50 GMT
Analysis: Mistrust despite accord
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Member of Iraqi Governing Council signing the constitution
The constitutional debate has brought to the fore deep splits
The signing of Iraq's interim constitution means the country's transition to self-government is still - just - on schedule.

And it is that, as much as the content of the document, that is vitally important to the Americans, as they prepare to hand power to an Iraqi government in less than four months' time.

The signing ceremony had twice been delayed.

Originally scheduled for the end of February, it was delayed until 5 March because of the devastating bomb attacks against Shia worshippers in Baghdad and Karbala three days earlier.

Then it was delayed yet again, because of last-minute objections raised by a group of Shia members of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

They wanted to remove a clause which, in effect, gives the Kurds a right of veto over the country's formal constitution which due to be approved in a referendum by October 2005.

The interim constitution seeks to reassure everybody. But clearly fears and rivalries persist.

And they wanted stronger Shia dominance over the country's collective presidency.

The interim constitution proposes a troika made up of a president and two vice-presidents. Shia politicians wanted the number increased to five, giving the Shia a three-to-two majority.

In the end, all 25 members of the IGC signed the interim constitution without amendment, with the Shia expressing their continuing reservations in these two areas.

Climate of mistrust

For the Americans, the repeated delays were an embarrassment and inevitably distracted attention from the content of the document.

Many commentators regard it as remarkably progressive by the standards of the Middle East.

It sets out an extensive bill of rights while also expressing respect for Islam as the country's main religion.

Iraqi holds picture of Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani
Sistani's objections held up the signing
It guarantees women a quarter of the seats in the new parliament.

But the wrangling which preceded the signing has left a bad after-taste.

It has exposed a lack of trust between the majority Shia and the minority Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

The Shia are suspicious of anything which would give the minorities the power to block what they want.

The minorities fear the new power of the Iraqi Shia will be exercised at their expense.

The interim constitution seeks to reassure everybody. But clearly fears and rivalries persist.

Unless the mood of mistrust can be dispelled, it threatens to poison Iraq's difficult political transition.

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