Five Shia members of the Iraqi Governing Council met Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani at his home in Najaf on Sunday to discuss how to resolve the impasse over the constitution.

The five had refused to sign the constitution on Friday because of al-Sistani's objections, angering other members some of whom saw the move as a Shia attempt to grab more power. Sunni and Kurd council members refused to change the charter.

After the Najaf talks, it appeared the Shia were backing down on their refusal.

"Sistani has reservations, but it will not constitute an obstacle," said Muhammad Husayn Bahr al-Ulum, who helped coordinate the talks on behalf of his father, council president Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum.

"It will be signed as it was agreed upon before by the Governing Council members," the son said.

The approval of an interim constitution is a key step in the US-backed plan to hand over power to the Iraqis on 30 June. The document will remain in effect until the end of 2005 after a permanent charter is approved.

Optimism

The Shia politicians said they were optimistic the constitution will be signed on Monday.

"The news is very good and we are going to sign it on Monday," council member Muwaffaq al-Rubai said. "We are glad that the grand Ayat Allah understood our position."

"The news is very good and we are going to sign it on Monday" 

Muwaffaq al-Rubai,
IGC member

Meanwhile the chief US occupation overseer in Iraq expressed hope the Iraqi interim constitution would be signed on Monday, but could not say whether a deal had been struck with Shia leaders.

"We hope the signing ceremony will happen tomorrow," said Paul Bremer said in an interview on Sunday on Fox News. "We've noted a statement by the current president of the Governing Council that they do intend to sign it tomorrow.

"I think it's a little early to know... We'll just have to see how that goes tomorrow," he said.

Bremer spoke after al-Rubai told reporters in Baghdad a deal had been struck on the constitution after talks at the home of al-Sistani.

No setback

Bremer denied the hold-up represented a major setback to the process of restoring self-rule to Iraq a year after US-led forces invaded to topple Saddam Hussein.

"What we are seeing here is a perhaps confused and perhaps initial way in which democracy works," he said. "This is kind of normal democratic habits working themselves out."

Bahr al-Ulum says there is
no obstacle despite reservations 

But the dispute illustrated the influence that the 73-year-old grand Ayat Allah, who rarely leaves his home, holds over the political process.

The interim constitution had been agreed unanimously by the council at the beginning of the week. But with the Ayat Allah opposing the deal, five out of 13 Shia members refused to sign only hours before a ceremony was to take place, breaking unity on the body and embarrassing US officials.

The main dispute was over a clause in the interim charter that would have given Iraq's Kurds the power to scuttle a permanent constitution when it comes up for a referendum in late 2005.

Clause for concern

The clause says that even if a majority of Iraqis support the permanent charter, the referendum would fail if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces reject it.

"What we are seeing here is a perhaps confused and perhaps initial way in which democracy works. This is kind of normal  democratic habits working themselves out"

Paul Bremer,
US-occupation administrator

The Kurds control three provinces in the north, enabling them to stop any constitution that encroaches on their self-rule region. Al-Sistani objected to a minority having the power to block a charter.

A Kurdish official said his side would not consent to changing the clause, which was agreed to by the entire council when it approved the constitution last week after several days of intense debate.

"We are sticking to it because it's a legitimate demand," said Kosrat Rasul, an official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties on the council.

Some Shia leaders also said they wanted to change a clause that would have provided for a single president with two deputies.

Demands

The Shia were reviving their demand for a presidency that would rotate among three Shia, a Kurd and a Sunni, giving the Shia a dominant role.

US and some Iraqi officials, however, said the shape of the presidency was not in dispute.

Al-Sistani has twice before derailed US plans with objections to the timetable and methods for transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

The Bush administration wants to carry out the transfer well before US presidential elections in November.