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Charter Sets Iraq on a Path, Though Rocky

The apparent approval of the constitution will bring a long-term elected government. But there is little to suggest an end to the divisions.

October 18, 2005|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The constitution apparently endorsed by Iraq's voters will bring them a long-term elected government that starting early next year can address the deep ethnic and sectarian differences that have helped fuel the nation's insurgency. But the political road map offered by the document does not trace a clear path to peace.

Because the charter appears set to take effect despite a clear-cut "no" vote by minority Sunni Arabs, it risks inflaming the Sunni-led armed uprising against U.S.-led forces, Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and the independence-minded ethnic Kurds.

It also leaves unsettled explosive issues that many Iraqis worry could lead the country to fragmentation or full-scale civil war. Those issues, including the allocation of oil revenue, will take months for the next parliament, which will be elected in December, to hash out. Ultimately, those too may be settled over the objections of Sunni Muslims.

U.S. and Iraqi leaders welcomed unofficial returns Monday indicating a solid majority vote in favor of the charter. They called the high turnout of Sunnis, who had largely stayed away from the parliamentary election in January, a rejection of the insurgency in favor of civil politics. President Bush called it "a very hopeful day for peace."

But the unconfirmed tallies reflected a divisive result that the administration and leaders of Iraq's ruling Shiite-Kurdish coalition had struggled for weeks to avoid.

The "no" vote was reported as high as 97% in Sunni areas, whereas some Shiite Muslim and Kurdish areas reported approval of the charter by 90% or more in unofficial returns. Iraq's election commission said Monday night that it was reviewing unusually high "yes" vote percentages in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces and that official returns would be delayed "a few days."

The review was not expected to alter the overall "yes" majority.

Sunnis are about one-fifth of Iraq's 26 million people. A majority of voters in three of four provinces with large Sunni populations rejected the charter. A two-thirds "no" vote in any three of the country's 18 provinces would have been enough to defeat it. Opposition achieved that benchmark in Al Anbar and Salahuddin provinces but fell short in Nineveh, where about 55% rejected it, according to unofficial figures.

Those figures indicate that Iraqis are still far from a political reconciliation that would help the Bush administration start withdrawing the 140,000 U.S. troops from the country.

"I would have loved to have a landslide 'yes' -- a big fat 'yes,' " said Mowaffak Rubaie, the government's national security advisor. "But even when God authored the Koran, there was much disagreement."

The constitution establishes Iraq as a parliamentary democracy with a weak central government and Islam as a principal source of its laws. Many Sunnis fear it will give rise to powerful, oil-rich mini-states in the Kurdish north and predominantly Shiite south, making permanent Sunnis' loss of power after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led, secular government.

What helped stave off the charter's possible defeat was a compromise, brokered last week by U.S. diplomats, that makes amendments easier to introduce. That prompted a leading Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, to support a "yes" vote and swayed some voters in Nineveh province.

The referendum was a breakthrough for U.S. efforts to engage a wide array of Sunni parties in politics. A senior State Department official said he was hopeful that the next Iraqi government, which will sit for four years, would enjoy broader support than the transitional one that took power in April.

On Monday, even the National Dialogue Council and other Sunni groups that had campaigned for a "no" vote and denounced the returns as fraudulent joined in the scramble to organize candidate lists for the Dec. 15 ballot. The Iraqi Islamic Party, seeking an election alliance with some of the naysayers, asked for an extension of Friday's deadline to register for the election.

Hassan Bazzaz, a Sunni party leader who teaches international relations at Baghdad University, said the heavy turnout of Sunni voters "has given their leaders more confidence in the political process, and this will keep all the Sunni parties in the game."

But for how long? "The real question is not so much whether [the Sunnis] participate but whether that participation will help diminish the constituency of the insurgency," said Nathan Brown, an Iraq specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

And that, he added, will depend on how inclusive a government the new parliament names.

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