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In Sunni Area, a Pro-Constitution Buzz

Many voters in Iraq's pivotal Nineveh province now say they favor the referendum. But tension remains in the volatile region.

October 14, 2005|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — In the upcoming constitutional referendum, Nineveh province has been considered the Ohio of Iraq, the swing state where the success of the founding document hangs in the balance.

But as some Sunni Arab leaders in Baghdad announced a last-minute endorsement of the constitution this week, local politicians from the Iraqi Islamic Party scrapped their "no" posters and began organizing "yes" rallies on the streets of the provincial capital.

Although they have yet to hold a copy of the draft constitution in their hands, many voters in Nineveh say they have been swayed by the political turnaround, making it seem increasingly unlikely that the charter will be rejected, even in this predominantly Sunni Arab province.

The constitution requires the approval of a majority of Iraqis in Saturday's referendum, but it can be defeated if at least two-thirds of the electorate in three of Iraq's 18 provinces votes no. Sunnis have led the opposition to the constitution, and voters in the provinces of Al Anbar and Salahuddin are most likely to reject it, making Nineveh's vote crucial.

On Wednesday, Iraqi leaders amended the constitution to make it more palatable to Sunnis, and the Iraqi Islamic Party endorsed it.

Though some of the drama of Saturday's vote is gone, tension remains.

A series of suicide attacks has claimed the lives of at least 60 people this week. The province has become a battleground between U.S.-led forces intent on securing high voter participation and insurgents fighting the referendum with violence.

About 20,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops are trying to maintain control of the province, but it is proving difficult.

Intimidation, assassinations and a history of voting fraud have polluted political life in Mosul. Election workers, high-level politicians and journalists have been slain. Last week, the Kurdish-dominated provincial government voted to oust the Sunni Arab police chief, accusing him of heavy-handed tactics and corruption.

Officials in both Baghdad and Washington fear that threats and ballot-box stuffing might jeopardize the credibility of the vote in Iraq's third-largest city. In nine months, three people have been brought from Baghdad to Mosul to oversee the election commission here.

"If they can't get along here," said Maj. Jeff Houston of the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion, "it creates serious problems for the rest of the country."

About 1.8 million of Nineveh's 2.5 million inhabitants live in Mosul. Sunni Arabs dominate on the west bank of the Tigris River and Kurds on the east. In addition, other groups such as Shabaks, Assyrians and Christians contribute to the mosaic of the city.

"Some Kurdish leaders want to include Mosul in the northern region, and the Arabs are refusing," said Arif Saleem, head of the Development and Dialogue Assn., an independent political research organization.

However, Kosha Goran, a Kurd who is the deputy governor, said that Kurds in the city have received death threats and that thousands have already fled north.

"It's an important place, not just because of its size but because of its ethnic diversity," said a U.S. official in Mosul, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The complexity of the city's ethnic and sectarian allegiances still makes the vote hard to call.

"It is not a foregone conclusion," said the U.S. official, adding that "if the Sunni Arabs are less antagonistic as a result of the developments in Baghdad, it makes it all the less likely that the constitution will fail."

A staff member at the Development and Dialogue Assn. predicted that the Iraqi Islamic Party endorsement of the constitution would have a substantial effect on the vote of Sunni Arabs in the city. News of it was "a political bomb," he said. His predecessor was killed recently, he said, so he preferred not to be identified.

As the news filtered through Mosul on Thursday, several people said they had been persuaded to vote for the charter.

"I made my final decision based on the amendments made lately that made the constitution more objective," said Yossef Mossab, a college professor. "The position of the Islamic Party gave us more courage to say yes to the constitution."

Omar Doboii, a 30-year-old lawyer, also said he would vote for the constitution.

"The decision of the Islamic Party did have an impact on me, and I think affects most people in Mosul," he said. The party has "influence inside our hearts, so if they say yes we will say yes."

Even if opponents of the constitution cannot defeat it, a large vote against it could make it seem less legitimate to Iraqis.

"If people went out in certain areas in large numbers and said no, we'd have to understand that as a very strong message," Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi said last week in Baghdad. He said politicians in Baghdad would pay special attention to the vote in Mosul.

Parts of what was once hailed as a model city fell into the hands of insurgents in November, after the U.S. troop presence there had been reduced to about 5,000 from 20,000.

Rebels fleeing a U.S.-led assault on Fallouja overran police stations, torched ballots and scared off the entire election commission staff before the vote in January.

Iraqi and American officials project a turnout in Nineveh of 40% to 60%, compared with 10% in the January election, which was beset by accusations of fraud and intimidation. Some residents accused Kurdish fighters of stealing ballots from some neighborhoods.

A U.S. official in Baghdad acknowledged that fraud allegations from the previous election cast a long shadow.

The United Nations will not send monitors to Mosul, but the Nineveh election committee has announced that at least 12,000 local people have volunteered to staff polling stations and guard against fraud.

"I'm not so worried about the referendum being divisive," said the U.S. official. "The most important thing is that it's seen as credible."

A special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.

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