Iraqi groups mount campaign over charter

Shiites, Kurds use clerics, media to get out the vote

Sunnis try to halt passage

August 30, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - After battling over Iraq's draft constitution for months in the halls of government, Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds prepared yesterday to take their fight over the charter to the streets, mosques and airwaves in advance of a nationwide referendum Oct. 15.

Six million copies of the draft are being printed for distribution to Iraqi citizens before the vote. Kurdish and Shiite politicians, who finalized the text over the weekend despite Sunni objections, vowed to make a strong push for passage.

"We will use everything," said Jawad Maliki, a Shiite politician who helped draft the charter. "We will use mosque preachers. We will even use Christian churches. We will use everything we need to make a great campaign for this constitution."

But Sunni Arabs, bitterly opposed to a document they view as a recipe for dismembering Iraq into semiautonomous regions, vowed to oppose the constitution in the courts, through international forums and in the voting booth, even though some doubt that they can beat the Shiites and Kurds at the polls.

Yesterday, Sunni anger spilled into the streets of Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, where about 1,000 protesters marched to condemn the charter.

About 85 percent of Iraq's Sunnis boycotted parliamentary elections in January, but Iraqi officials predicted that many more would take part in the October vote. Iraqi election officials said Sunni tribal leaders have asked for new voter registration centers in their parts of the country, and authorities approved yesterday a one-week extension, until Sept. 7, for voters in Sunni-dominated Anbar province to register.

"This time is different," said Hussain Hindawi, an election official. "Last time they were boycotting. This time they were practically begging us to open election centers."

Iraq's transitional law does not clearly state whether politicians can make changes to the proposed constitution even as the text is being read and studied by the public. Sunni and Shiite leaders said that behind-the-scenes negotiations continue, with Tariq Hashimi, leader of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party, saying that his group was trying to make amendments.

Sunni leaders have said that they might try to mount a legal challenge to the document, alleging that the National Assembly violated its own rules by repeatedly extending the deadline for completing the text and failing to reach a consensus on the charter. But they concede that they would have a tough time getting a sympathetic hearing in a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

"We have no court in Iraq to trust," said Salah al-Mutlaq, a spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni umbrella group.

Sunnis also said they plan to make appeals to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union leader Javier Solana and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who blasted the draft constitution as a "recipe for chaos" in an interview yesterday with the British Broadcasting Corp.

With those avenues considered long shots, al-Mutlaq said the Sunnis hope to launch a spirited "no" campaign. But with two days to go before the deadline in many areas, he said many Sunni Arabs have not yet registered to vote.

In Anbar province, a hotbed of insurgency, only 19 of the proposed 28 registration centers have been opened.

Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, said officials have opened only one registration center for the 300,000 people in his ancestral area near the northern city of Mosul.

Al-Mutlaq noted that Sunnis lack the kind of campaigning muscle that Shiites have been able to muster.

In the weeks before the January elections, Shiites used the image of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in their get-out-the-vote materials, and thousands of clerics urged a large turnout. They spread their message on posters and banners as well as through television and radio stations they control.

The Shiites will employ a similar strategy for this election, said Ali Dabagh, a Shiite official. "His eminence [al-Sistani] is going to ask people to vote. The lower-level clerics are going to ask people to vote `yes.'"

Sunnis fear that their campaign is seriously outgunned.

"We don't have the financial resources," al-Mutlaq said. "We don't have television channels."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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