At least 36 dead in bombing of Baghdad mosque

Lawmakers reverse voting rule that would have kept Sunnis from blocking constitution


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A suicide bomber attacked a Shiite Muslim mosque packed with worshippers marking the first day of Ramadan last night, killing at least 36 people and wounding 95, Iraqi hospital officials said.

The Ibu Nama Hilli mosque in Hillah, south of Baghdad, was full of mourners who had gathered to remember a local restaurant owner killed three days ago by insurgents.

There were conflicting reports about whether the bomber was in a car or on foot, but several witnesses said a man walked into the mosque carrying explosives around his chest and in a bag.

The blood bath came on a day when Iraqi politicians moved to quell sectarian tensions by reversing a controversial decision that would have made it harder for Iraq's draft constitution to be defeated in a national referendum Oct. 15.

Outside the Hillah mosque, the explosion sent bodies and limbs flying into the street where flags had been hung to celebrate Ramadan, Islam's holiest month during which observant believers fast from dawn to dusk. The wail of ambulances rang in the streets for more than an hour as medics tried to evacuate the wounded.

Ahmed Tahir, a 30-year-old neighbor of the slain restaurant owner, said he attended the ceremony, finished his prayers and walked out into the street where he met a friend.

As they stood chatting, the Shiite mosque exploded.

"This is how the terrorists inaugurated this holy month of Ramadan," said Tahir. "But God will not keep silent after this. God's revenge will be severe."

Both the blast and the wrangling over the constitution illustrate the deep divisions among Iraqis.

Many Sunni Arabs, who also make up the backbone of the insurgency, oppose the charter. Shiites and Kurds, who had the largest role in writing the text, are campaigning for its approval.

On Sunday, Shiites and Kurds pushed the election rule change through the National Assembly, angering Sunnis and drawing fire from United Nations and U.S. officials.

At U.N. headquarters yesterday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the assembly's decision to rescind the rules change. "It is very important that the Iraqi parliament reversed itself because that decision was patently inappropriate and we made that clear to them," he said.

At the crux of the conflict was how many "no" votes would be needed to defeat the constitution. The country's interim charter stated that the document would take effect if more than half the voters in Iraq approved it and if two-thirds of voters in three or more provinces did not reject it.

But lawmakers decided Sunday that for the draft to be defeated, two-thirds of registered voters - rather than two-thirds of those who cast ballots - in three provinces must vote against it.

Saleh Mutlak, chairman of the Iraqi Dialogue Committee and a leading Sunni member of the constitutional committee, complained that the change "gave a bad signal to the Iraqis, saying that this National Assembly is ready to forge and impose the constitution by force."

Several assembly members said Sunnis had threatened to boycott the referendum unless the vote was reversed.

Shiites and Kurds, though, have feared that violence in advance of the referendum could keep voters away from the polls, skewing the vote in favor of a "no" that they say would not represent the will of Iraq's majority.

Saad Jawad, an assembly member affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political party, said the reversal "makes it possible for 1,000 people to defeat the constitution against the will of 10 million."

But because his party is "keen that the U.N. takes part," he said, it decided to endorse the reversal at yesterday's sparsely attended National Assembly session.

Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said the move would lend credibility to the political process, even if it meant the constitution might fail. "It's more important that it has the reputation of being transparent," he said.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish leader, said the U.N. pressure allowed legislators to change course without appearing to be bowing to American or Sunni demands.

"They have a good excuse - to say that the U.N. doesn't accept this and thinks it's a violation," he said.

U.S., U.N. and Iraqi officials have hoped the constitution would heal the nation's political and sectarian rifts. But the skirmish over voting rules was yet another controversy that could further alienate Sunni Arabs from the political process. Their participation is seen as vital in bringing down the Sunni-led insurgency and restoring stability.

Yesterday Annan acknowledged the deep rifts among Iraqis.

"We had hoped that this electoral process and the transition arrangements would pull the Iraqis together," he said. "It has not worked as we had hoped, but we still urge the parties to work together, and I believe the reversal by the parliament of the decision ... would help the process."

This week, the United Nations began distributing ballots, voting boxes and more than 5 million copies of the constitution around the country.

U.S. military commanders are warning that the coming days could be even more violent than usual, especially in the capital, which currently averages about 28 attacks a day.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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