Iraq’s most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric Thursday urged his followers to adopt a draft constitution in a nationwide referendum next month, offering crucial support for a document that would boost the fledgling Iraqi government’s legitimacy.
Iraqis had been watching to see whether Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani would weigh in on the issue. Millions of Shiite Muslims followed his call in January to vote in the parliamentary election, which gave Shiites a majority in the interim government.
If two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the constitution, a new government must be formed and the process of writing the document would start again.
Some Sunni Muslim clerics and politicians have urged their followers to vote down the document, complaining that they did not have an adequate role in drafting it. Sunni Arabs make up nearly 20% of the population.
In Jordan’s capital, about 150 Iraqi Sunni clerics and tribal leaders called for the rejection of the proposed constitution, saying it would lead to the fragmentation of the nation. The local leaders from Iraq’s insurgency-torn Al Anbar province, the country’s Sunni heartland west of Baghdad, chose to hold their three-day conference in Amman for security reasons.
“We urge all the Iraqi people to go to the polls and say no to the constitution,” said Sheik Abdul Latif Humayem, a prominent cleric from Ramadi.
In other developments Thursday, British troops in the tense southern city of Basra greatly reduced their presence in the streets after Gov. Mohammed Musabah Waily called on Iraqis to sever cooperation with the foreign troops until London apologized for the storming of a police station by British troops to free two of their own.
For the second day, no British forces were seen accompanying Iraqi police on patrols of Basra. Joint patrols had been routine.
At least five Iraqis were killed Monday in clashes between British forces and Iraqi police and demonstrators. A British armored vehicle broke through a jail wall to free the two soldiers arrested by Iraqi police and militiamen.
In an interview Thursday with Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie called the incident “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”
Later, Waily, the governor, said he was in negotiations with the British and that the dispute was “about to be solved and the crisis ended.” He did not elaborate.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb hit a U.S. convoy in southern Baghdad, killing one soldier and wounding six; a car bomb wounded an American soldier outside the capital; and suspected insurgents gunned down at least eight Iraqis in four separate attacks, officials said.