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Iraqi Sunnis Focus Beyond Saturday's Vote

Many oppose the constitution but realize it is likely to win approval. The assembly election in December holds more promise.

October 11, 2005|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

TIKRIT, Iraq — Not far from Saddam Hussein's birthplace, a delegation of U.S. and Iraqi election organizers met Monday with Sunni Arab heartland leaders to discuss the new Iraqi constitution scheduled for a referendum Saturday.

During two wide-ranging meetings, politicians, clerics, professors, lawyers and tribal elders questioned various tenets of the constitution, the accessibility of polling places and seeds of national disunity they perceive in the document.

But time and again, the discussion went beyond the Oct. 15 ballot, to Dec. 15, the date of the upcoming National Assembly election.

"Why do governorates that are smaller than Samarra [capital of Salahuddin province] have National Assembly delegations of similar size?" one man asked. "Can we expect to win more seats this time?"

"I have been invited by two political parties to be a nominee for the National Assembly," said another man. "Is it acceptable to be nominated by two political parties?"

Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq but who held power during Hussein's reign, are believed by and large to oppose the constitution. But many are also resigned to the likelihood that a majority of Iraqis will ratify the document, and they are refocusing their attention on the year-end parliamentary election.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the previous parliamentary vote, held in January. The national at-large seats were divided up between political parties, and many candidates kept their names secret out of fear of assassination. Consequently, many Iraqis complained that they were essentially voting blind. The election in December, however, will probably be organized around 18 provincial races and promises to be much more open and competitive.

Parliamentary hopefuls are already lining up support. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, for one, announced this month that he was forming a coalition intended to be a secular, multiethnic alternative to more hard-line Shiite and Sunni groups.

There are also new parties and coalitions forming around Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi and Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr Uloum.

"They are looking forward to the December elections," said Adil Lami, Iraq's chief election officer. "Most of them, especially the Sunnis, believe that they will be able to change articles in the constitution when they get to the National Assembly."

According to the latest draft of the constitution, amendments to the document must be proposed by the president and the Cabinet or by one-fifth of parliament. Proposed amendments pass muster after a two-thirds vote of the assembly, a popular referendum and ratification by the president.

One State Department official, who asked for anonymity because of a prohibition on speaking to the media, called Sunni plans to change the constitution after December "delusional."

"There's no way they could get enough votes," the official said. "They don't have the numbers."

As Sunnis look to the December election, however, they continue to make last-ditch efforts to change the language of the document -- even as it is being distributed around the nation. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has shuttled among meetings of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factional leaders in an effort to broker concessions that would persuade the Sunnis to embrace the proposed charter.

So far, the talks have yielded only tentative acceptance of symbolic changes. Shiite and Kurdish leaders have agreed to call the country the "Arab and Muslim nation of Iraq" and declare Arabic one of the official languages of the predominantly Kurdish north, participants said. Shiites, aiming to quiet the Sunnis' claim that federalism would fracture the country, have agreed to a clause emphasizing Iraq's unity "in its soil, its nation and its sovereignty."

There has been no agreement, however, on Sunni demands to drop the charter's commitment to federalism -- which would formalize the Kurds' autonomy in the north and allow the Shiites to form their own federal region in the south -- and eliminate language critical of Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party.

Those elements of the proposed constitution, said Shiite negotiator Ali Dabagh, "are absolutely untouchable."

During the Monday meetings in Tikrit, Sunni leaders encouraged voting in the election even if the constitution was sure to be approved.

"Broad participation is one element of success," said Hamad Humood Kaisi, governor of Salahuddin, the province that includes Tikrit. "The participation of Sunnis here is a sign of faith in the democratic process in Iraq."

Deputy Gov. Abdullah Ejbarah is an unlikely convert to Iraq's nascent democratic process. A former general, he fought U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion and boycotted the first parliamentary election. On Monday, he was among the Tikrit leaders urging citizens to vote.

Ejbarah said that he expected a big turnout and that even some local insurgent groups were split on the referendum.

"Some of the more violent ones, they just tell the people that they will kill anyone who votes," he said. "But some say it's ok to vote -- but you should vote no."

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.

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