BAGHDAD, Iraq - Shiite members of Iraq's Governing Council refused to sign the interim constitution at the last minute Friday, delaying a signing ceremony after the country's top cleric rejected parts of the document, Iraqi officials said.
The council agreed to the accord unanimously Monday, but Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani rejected provisions put into the text at the request of the Kurds to protect their self-rule area in the north, said a source in the council, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The marja'iya (al-Sistani's office) will not accept it," the source said.
Also in dispute was a clause outlining the shape of the presidency, a Shiite official said. The Shiites were reviving a demand that would let them dominate the presidency, he said.
Council members went into an emergency meeting to try to resolve the differences several hours before a signing ceremony was to be held, said a coalition spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity. Several hours past its scheduled time, the ceremony was still not held and there was no immediate word on when it would take place.
The top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, was observing the meeting but not participating, the spokesman said. He said the delay was caused by a "technical issue" that arose in the past 24 hours.
In Washington, the State Department declined immediate comment.
The interim constitution, which will be in effect until national elections due by January, is a crucial part of the U.S. plan for handing over power to the Iraqis on June 30.
The sharply divided Governing Council agreed on the draft early Monday - three days past deadline - only after Bremer pushed them into intensive marathon sessions to overcome their differences. The Shiites' move to reopen the debate throws into disarray the unity shown in that agreement.
It also highlights the power held by al-Sistani over American attempts to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis and end its occupation, which the Bush administration wants to accomplish well before the November presidential election. Opposition from al-Sistani has derailed U.S. plans twice in the past.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the council, denounced the Shiite maneuver as "just a matter of putting obstacles in front of the declaration."
"The way they put it is not right. The minority should not impose their will on the majority," he told CNN.
Hamed al-Bayati, an adviser to one of the Shiite parties that refused to sign, said the Shiites, in consultation with al-Sistani, were balking at signing because of two clauses in the draft that was agreed on.
One of the clauses was sought by the Kurds to ensure that the eventual permanent constitution, to be put to a national referendum, does not encroach on their self-rule zone in the north. The clause says that if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject the permanent charter, it will not go into effect. The Kurd self-rule region includes three provinces in the north.
"Some of these provinces have only 400,000 or 500,000 people. We cannot have that number of people rejecting a constitution for 25 million people," al-Bayati said.
A representative of al-Sistani reflected those concerns during a Friday sermon at Karbala's Imam Hussein shrine.
"There is one article that give a specific party the right to veto the permanent constitution if it fails to meet their demands and this a dangerous thing," Sheik Abdel-Mehdi al-Kerbalai told worshippers.
The ceremony has already been delayed by several days by suicide attacks in Baghdad and the city of Karbala on Tuesday that killed scores of Shiite pilgrims on the holy day of Ashoura. The attacks raised the specter of sectarian war in Iraq - and fueled Shiite anger at the U.S. occupation, blamed for the country's persistent insecurity.
Another issue in dispute was the makeup of the presidency, he said. The draft approved Monday set up a single president with two deputies. But al-Bayati said the Shiites were reviving their demand for a five-person rotating presidency.
Under that proposal, which was raised in the debate over the final accord, the presidency would rotate between three Shiites, a Kurd and a Sunni - giving the Shiites a dominant role.
The council members that refused to sign were Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party, independent Shiite Mouwafak al-Rubaie and the current council president Shiite cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloom, al-Bayati said.
Coalition officials told spectators waiting at the signing ceremony not to leave, and the coalition spokesman underlined that the ceremony was not canceled.
An elaborate ceremony was planned - emphasizing Iraqi unity. A platform was set up before a map of the nation emblazoned with the slogan, "We all participate in the new Iraq."
As an audience waited for the signing to take place, children dressed in traditional garb from all parts of Iraq sang patriotic songs. Twenty-five fountain pens, one for each member, were lined up on a wooden desk that once belonged to King Feisal I, Iraq's first monarch, at the Baghdad Convention Center at the heart of the U.S. occupation headquarters.
U.S. Apache and Blackhawk helicopters swarmed over the center and the nearby Tigris River and increased numbers of troops stood at checkpoints leading up to the venue.
Earlier Friday, militants fired mortar rounds at Baghdad International Airport, the U.S. military said. Two bombs also exploded on capital roads frequently used by U.S. troops, but no injuries were reported.