Sunnis demand change in terms of referendum

October 04, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Sunni Muslim leaders unleashed a storm of criticism yesterday at a law that would make it nearly impossible for them to muster enough votes to defeat the charter in an Oct. 15 referendum.

But after a day of tense meetings, one of the two main political parties running the government said it had bowed to pressure from U.S. and U.N. officials and agreed seek a change in the legislation as early as today.

The apparently simple question that developed into Iraq's latest political crisis is how many "yes" votes will be needed to adopt the constitution and how many "no" votes will be needed to defeat it.

Under the country's interim charter, the constitution would take effect if more than half of all voters approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces do not reject it.

Iraqi politicians had assumed that "voters" means those who turn out to vote, not registered voters. But as Sunni leaders began mobilizing for a "no" vote in the few provinces where Sunnis are concentrated, Iraq's election commission asked the National Assembly for a clarification.

The result was a law approved Sunday by lawmakers from the ruling Shiite Muslim and Kurdish coalition. For the constitution to pass, the law said, more than half of those who turn out to vote must say "yes"; for it to be defeated, two-thirds of registered voters in three or more provinces have to say "no."

The higher standard for a "no" vote would all but kill any chance for a rejection of the charter in heavily Sunni provinces, even if everyone turning out there voted "no." The overall turnout in Iraq's parliamentary election last January was less than 60 percent and far lower in Sunni areas.

Unless the law is changed, Sunni leaders said, they would boycott the referendum and refuse to accept the results. That set off alarm bells in the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy here.

Lawmakers of all three political factions were called into urgent meetings throughout the day yesterday with U.S. and U.N. officials, who offered no comment as they struggled to broker a solution.

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