Shiite Muslim clerics Friday sought to unite their followers behind Iraq’s draft constitution, while their Sunni counterparts continued to urge their followers to reject the document.
Representatives of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, reached out to rival Shiite factions during Friday prayers, praising Muqtada Sadr, a firebrand cleric whose support of the document is crucial.
Sadr’s faction, meanwhile, announced plans to meet with Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the rival Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which Sadr’s followers have blamed for an attempt to firebomb their Najaf headquarters.
The overtures, made after weeks of deteriorating relations and violent confrontation among Shiite groups, highlight the continuing fragility of efforts to unite the country’s myriad factions under one charter. Because some Sunni Muslim leaders have told their loyalists to reject the constitution, Shiite unity is crucial to its passage.
If two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote against it in the Oct. 15 referendum, the draft will not be adopted.
Sunnis fear the document would give Shiites and Kurds too much power and break up the country.
Sistani has given the charter his firm backing. This week, his aides said he would issue an edict compelling followers to vote for the constitution. Sistani’s religious ruling is likely to influence millions of Iraqis.
“We will follow the steps of our scholars, and we would not do something without consulting them,” said Safi Abdul-Sattar, 32, a Basra resident.
“If the [religious leaders] say, ‘Vote for the constitution,’ we will do so. There is nobody who is more careful about the future of this country.”
Sadr, whose followers threatened to pull out of the government after last month’s clashes in Najaf, remains uncommitted on the constitution, though he has encouraged voter registration.
Transforming himself into a political figure, Sadr has muted his calls for opposition to the U.S. presence and recently offered solicitous words to rivals.
“This was very brave of him and came at a very appropriate and crucial time,” Sheik Dhia Ahmadi said of Sadr’s overtures, speaking at the Bratha Mosque in Baghdad, which is affiliated with Sistani.
Tariq Harb, an independent political expert, said Sadr could not be ignored in the campaign.
“We cannot forget the importance of the Sadr movement,” Harb said. “They do have a strong base in Iraq which cannot be ignored.”
Harb and others say it is unlikely that Sadr, who commands a large following in Baghdad, Najaf and Basra, would actively discourage people from approving the constitution.
“I believe many of the followers of the Sadr movement will vote yes to the constitution,” said Baha Araji, a Sadr representative and member of the constitution-writing committee.
“All parties must unite during this hard stage to improve security, the economy and to have a successful participation in the referendum,” Araji said.
The government launched a campaign this week to educate voters on the draft constitution, as the United Nations printed and began distributing 5 million copies of the document around the country. The campaign will include six live televised panel discussions among Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni speakers.
In mosques Friday, Sunni clerics called on followers to reject the document. “Islam must be our constitution,” Sheik Mahmoud Sumaidaie said at the Umm Qura Mosque in west Baghdad. “Faithfulness to Islam, and honesty to Islam and brotherhood, calls us to refuse this constitution.”
One worshiper who declined to give his name said he believed that the integrity of the country was at stake.
“We will vote no, simply because this constitution will divide Iraq into pieces,” he said. “How would an honest Iraqi ever accept such a constitution?”
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux, Caesar Ahmed, Raheem Salman and Suhail Affan and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.