BAGHDAD — There are no red states or blue states. Ballots won't have hanging chads. But the fight over Iraq's constitution appears headed for an election day showdown that -- similar to recent U.S. presidential elections -- will be decided by one or two battleground provinces.
A draft of the charter is almost certain to win approval this week in the transitional National Assembly, which is dominated by Shiites and Kurds. But Sunni Arabs have strong reservations about the document and, with negotiations still stalled Tuesday, they are gearing up to defeat the charter in an Oct. 15 referendum.
The constitution, which requires the approval of a majority of Iraqis, can be defeated if at least two-thirds of the electorate in three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote "no."
Political strategists predict a hard-fought campaign that will focus on a handful of ethnically and politically divided provinces, with regions around Mosul and Baqubah playing the swing roles that Florida and Ohio, respectively, did in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential contests.
"The constitution is supposed to be an issue for all Iraqis, but the campaign is going to be concentrated in those governorates where people think it could be rejected," said Nabil Salem, a University of Baghdad professor and political analyst.
A showdown could still be avoided if Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers can find consensus and jointly endorse the proposed constitution by Thursday, when the National Assembly is to vote.
"Many of the issues have been finalized and agreed upon," Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, said Tuesday. "I believe that the next three days will be enough to witness the birth of a constitution."
President Bush, who is betting that adoption of a new constitution will stem insurgent violence in Iraq and eventually enable more than 130,000 U.S. troops to come home, said Tuesday that Sunnis had a choice. "Do they want to live in a society that is free, or do they want to live in violence?" he asked.
But hopes for a broad consensus were dimming fast. Humam Hamoodi, a Shiite cleric who heads the committee charged with drafting the charter, acknowledged Tuesday that several divisive issues probably wouldn't be settled before the assembly vote.
Many Sunni leaders, who have complained that the proposed constitution would make the central government too weak and lead to the breakup of Iraq, didn't even attend a committee meeting Tuesday where Shiite and Kurdish leaders celebrated their work. Some top politicians are speaking of irreconcilable differences.
"The Sunnis are too stubborn," said Kurdish leader Mahmoud Othman. "The Shiites don't want to deal with them."
Sunni Arabs are vowing to take the fight to the polls. "We will have our say Oct. 15," said Ayad Ani of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni political party.
The three-province veto provision in the constitutional referendum rules was originally crafted at the behest of Kurds, who dominate three northern provinces. They feared the constitutional review process could be dominated by Arabs.
But after parliamentary elections in January handed power chiefly to Shiite Arabs and Kurds, the constitutional veto clause has become the last bargaining chip of Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20% of Iraq's population and constitute majorities in at least two provinces. They could be joined in a "no" vote by a group of Shiites loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr who also oppose key elements of the draft.
"All anyone needs to get is three" provinces, said Hassan Bazzaz, a University of Baghdad political science professor. "It won't be that hard."
Sunni Arab politicians, many of whom boycotted the January parliamentary election, have been urging supporters to register to vote in recent weeks. Some Sunni clerics have ordered worshipers to election centers. According to Iraq's election commission, some of the most active registration centers are in Sunni-dominated areas.
Even before negotiations broke down among drafters of the constitution, representatives for Sunni parties and a coalition of Sadr followers were meeting privately to map out a strategy for rallying a "no" vote in three provinces. Sunnis and Sadr loyalists, who forged ties last year when each battled U.S. troops, share concerns about federalism in the draft constitution.
"Together we are confident we can deliver three provinces," said Fatah Sheik, head of a coalition loyal to Sadr. "It's already done. We could deliver three provinces by ourselves, if we wanted, including Baghdad."
Sadr, son of a revered cleric who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime, is popular among young, disenfranchised Shiites, including an estimated 2 million people in the capital's worst slum, known as Sadr City. Mobilizing those supporters to go to the polls could sway the outcome in the capital, Sheik says.