Sunnis threaten draft constitution

Leaders of minority group could mobilize enough voters to defeat it in Oct.

August 24, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Top Sunni Muslim Arab leaders lashed out yesterday against a draft constitution presented to the Iraqi parliament the day before, threatening to mobilize voters against it in an October referendum that could split the nation even further along sectarian lines.

Shiite Muslim politicians from the majority group that controls Iraq's government said they wanted to work out a deal with the Sunnis but that they plan to push the constitution through parliament later this week and then present it to the Iraqi public for a vote with or without Sunni agreement.

If the Sunnis are successful in getting two-thirds of the voters in three of Iraq's provinces to vote against the constitution, it would scuttle the document and start the process over again, probably angering the Shiites, who are eager to assume control in a nation where they were oppressed for more than 30 years.

If the Sunnis aren't successful, it could further alienate a minority that is already the base of the insurgency.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, in Washington, dismissed the idea that Sunni opposition to the constitution could spark a civil war.

President Bush, traveling in Idaho, praised the Iraqi effort to draw up a constitution. "The fact that Iraq will have a democratic constitution that honors women's rights, the rights of minorities, is going to be an important change in the broader Middle East," Bush said.

Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders were optimistic yesterday that a deal on the constitution could be struck.

At issue are problems that have long bedeviled the nation:

Distribution of oil revenues. The Kurds to the north and the Shiites to the south are in areas rich in oil fields. The Sunnis in central and western Iraq are not. The Kurds and Shiites want the provinces to gain more control of oil and gas proceeds, wresting power from the central government in Baghdad. The constitution says the issue of oil distribution will be decided in the future. It also says, though, that when there are disputes between provincial and federal laws, "the priority will be for the provincial law."

Baath Party. Sunnis are furious that Shiites and Kurds inserted language naming the Baath Party a terrorist organization. Many Sunnis see the party, that of former dictator Saddam Hussein, as an Arab nationalist organization that was subverted by Hussein's thirst for power. Membership was often compulsory for Iraqis seeking government or white-collar positions.

Islam. The draft says no law in Iraq can contradict Islamic law. Despite language that also says laws can't contradict human rights or democracy, Sunnis worry that Shiite clerics will decide what contradicts Islam. They fear this could create a de facto theocracy, similar to that in neighboring Iran.

The Kurdish and Shiite factions are willing to discuss changing only the portions of the constitution that relate to wealth distribution, the Baath Party and the structure of the presidency, said Laith Kuba, the prime minister's spokesman.

"Except for these three issues, this is the best thing they can accomplish," he said.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a senior Sunni leader, said the Shiite and Kurd leadership bypassed not only the Sunnis but also the constitutional drafting committee, writing the constitution in closed-door meetings attended by political bloc leaders.

As of yesterday afternoon, Mutlak said he still hadn't received a complete copy of the constitution. "If they adopt this, all the Iraqi nationalists will be against it, all the Sunni will be against it," he said. "We will tell the people to say no to the constitution."

Homam Hamoodi, a Shiite cleric who led the constitutional drafting committee, dismissed the Sunnis' objections.

"When I said we reached an agreement, I didn't say we had a consensus. But we have a majority in favor of the constitution," he said. "Those who represent the Arab Sunnis are not elected. Who can tell if these people represent the Arab Sunnis?"

Hamoodi was referring to the fact that most Sunnis boycotted national elections in January, putting the Shiites in position to sweep much of the balloting.

The Sunnis who have participated in the constitutional process are mostly moderates. Some Iraqis fear that if those Sunnis are estranged, the broader Sunni population might support groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association, which has boycotted the political process entirely, calling it a farce put on by the occupying U.S.

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