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Iraq Battle Moving Toward Ballot Box

Times Staff Writer

After battling over Iraq’s draft constitution for months in the halls of government, Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds prepared Monday to take their fight to the streets, mosques and airwaves ahead of a nationwide referendum on the document.

Up to 6 million copies of the draft are being printed for distribution to Iraqi citizens before the Oct. 15 vote. Kurdish and Shiite politicians, who finalized the text over the weekend despite the objections of Sunni Arabs, vowed to make a strong push for passage.

“We will use everything,” said Jawad Maliki, a Shiite politician who helped draft the charter. “We will use mosque preachers. We will even use Christian churches. We will use everything we need to make a great campaign for this constitution.”

But Sunni Arabs, bitterly opposed to a document they view as a recipe for dismembering Iraq into semiautonomous regions, vowed to oppose the constitution in the courts, through international forums, and in voting booths, even though some doubt they can beat the powerful Shiites and Kurds at the polls.

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On Monday, Sunni Arab anger over the proposed constitution spilled onto the streets of Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, where about 1,000 demonstrators marched to condemn the proposed charter and held up portraits of the deposed Iraqi president.

Up to 85% of Sunni Arabs boycotted parliamentary elections in January, but Iraqi officials predicted many more would take part in the October poll. Iraqi election officials said Sunni Arab tribal leaders have asked for new voter registration centers in their parts of the country, and authorities Monday approved a one-week extension, until Sept. 7, for voters in Sunnidominated Al Anbar province to join the voter rolls.

“This time is different,” said Hussein Hindawi, an election official. “Last time they were boycotting. This time they were practically begging us to open election centers.”

Iraq’s transitional law does not clearly state whether politicians can make changes to the proposed constitution even as the text is being read and studied by the public. Both Sunni and Shiite leaders say behind-the-scenes negotiations continue over the document, with Tariq Hashimi, leader of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party, saying his group was trying to “make amendments” on articles it disagrees with.

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Sunnis might also try to mount a legal challenge to the document, alleging that the National Assembly violated its own rules by repeatedly extending the deadline for completing the text and failing to reach a consensus on the charter. But they concede they’ll have a tough time getting a sympathetic hearing in a government now dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

“We have no court in Iraq to trust,” said Salih Mutlaq, a spokesman for a Sunni Arab umbrella group called the National Dialogue Council.

Sunnis also said they planned to make appeals for intervention to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who blasted the draft constitution as a “recipe for chaos” in an interview with the BBC on Monday.

With those avenues considered longshots, Mutlaq said the Sunnis hoped to launch a spirited “no” campaign. But he doubted conditions would be fair during the referendum.

With two days to go before the registration deadline in many areas, he said many Sunni Arabs had not yet joined the voter rolls. In Al Anbar, a hotbed of insurgency, only 19 of the proposed 28 registration centers opened, said Safwat Rashid of the election commission.

Vice President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Arab, said officials had opened only one registration center for the 300,000 or so people in his ancestral area near the northern city of Mosul.

In addition to difficulties registering constituents, Mutlaq noted that Sunni Arabs lacked the kind of campaigning muscle that Shiites had been able to muster.

In the weeks leading up to January’s elections, Shiites used the image of their senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in their get-out-the-vote materials, and thousands of clerics nationwide urged a large turnout for their now-dominant coalition. They spread their message on posters and banners as well as through several television and radio stations they control.

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The Shiites will employ a similar strategy for this election, said Ali Dabagh, a Shiite official. “His eminence [Sistani] is going to ask people to vote,” he said. “The lower-level clerics are going to ask people to vote ‘yes.’ ”

Sunnis fear their campaign may be seriously outgunned. “To be honest, we don’t have the financial resources,” Mutlaq said. “We don’t have any television channels.”

There are two ways that the constitution could be rejected. First, a simple majority of all voters could cast “no” ballots -- an outcome considered extremely unlikely given that Shiites alone make up about 60% of Iraq’s population.

Even if the charter is approved by a majority nationwide, it could still be defeated if two-thirds of voters in three or more provinces reject the document. That is considered a possibility, given that Sunnis constitute a majority in at least two provinces and have substantial populations in several others.

Sunnis are exploring whether they could make alliances with some Shiites who oppose the charter.

If the constitution is rejected in the referendum, there would be an election for another transitional parliament that would start from scratch writing a new charter. If the constitution is adopted, elections would be held in December for a parliament that would serve a full term.

Some Sunni Arabs, even those who bitterly oppose the draft charter, said they might consider supporting it, if only to prevent more chaos and disappointment for their ranks.

Yawer, one of Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni Arab officials, said the nation’s demographic mix might cause Sunnis to lose the vote in all but Al Anbar province.

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Though he disagreed with many provisions of the draft, Yawer said he might urge Sunnis to vote for it and focus on winning enough votes in the December elections to forge a large nationalist alliance that could challenge the power of the Shiites and Kurds and make amendments to the draft in 2006.

“My heart says no, but my mind says yes because we have to move along,” he said Monday. “The biggest possibility is that it’s going to pass. I’m going to prepare for December.”

Many Iraqis said they feared the upcoming campaign could exacerbate ongoing tensions between Shiites, who now dominate Iraq’s security forces and government, and Sunnis, who ran the country under Hussein’s regime.

In the capital Monday, gunmen assassinated the brother of Baghdad’s mayor, a member of a top Shiite party. Earlier, gunmen killed a traffic police commander in the Adhamiya neighborhood and a police officer in the Amariya district.

At the Sunni Umm Qura Mosque in Baghdad on Monday evening, angry mourners gathered to grieve over the deaths of dozens of young Sunni Arab men found shot to death near the Iranian border last week.

Most of the men belonged to the Dulaimi tribe, which is thought to be a leading force in the insurgency. Family members accused members of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces of the killings.

Family members, neighbors and friends cried as they carried the rotting bodies of the dead away and shot AK-47s into the air.

“And they come and talk about reconciliation,” said one grieving man. “What kind of reconciliation is this?”

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Staff writers Suhail Affan, Zainab Hussein and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.


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