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Iraqi Council Close to Agreement on Interim Government, says Spokesman - 2004-02-29

The Iraqi Governing Council is still trying to finalize the blueprint for an interim government that will run Iraq after the U.S. coalition hands over power in June.

A spokesman for the council told VOA news that marathon negotiations lasted until the early morning hours Sunday. Hamid al-Kifaey says the members are about 90 percent of the way to a final agreement. Once the draft is finalized, a legal team will have to work out the language.

Other council members say another meeting is expected later on Sunday to thrash out the remaining details of several disputed points.

The council has been deeply divided over several key issues, including the role of Islam in the legal system, women's rights, the shape of the presidency, and Kurdish demands for continued autonomy in their northern provinces.

Conservative council members want Islamic law as the basis for the legal system, which secularists reject. The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said the document can recognize Islam as the religion of most Iraqis, but he has hinted he might veto an interim constitution that too closely links the government to Islamic law.

Late Saturday, council member Mouwafik al-Rubaie acknowledged the disputes, but told reporters the members were learning the craft of compromise.

The deadline for drafting the interim constitution was set for Saturday, but no agreement was reached.

U.S. officials have said a delay of a few days should not upset the timetable for handing over authority to Iraqis on June 30, as agreed last November.

Even if an agreement is reached in the next day or two on the interim constitution, council members say the signing ceremony will not be held until Wednesday, after the end of the Shiite Muslim holiday Ashura, which marks the martyrdom of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed's grandson.