Powerful Sunni Group Urges Iraqis to Reject New Charter

By DEXTER FILKINS and EDWARD WONG

New York Times

October 13, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 13 - A powerful Sunni organization urged Iraqi voters today to reject the country's new constitution in Saturday's nationwide referendum, one day after lawmakers approved a deal intended to overcome Sunni objections to the draft charter.

The continued opposition to the document by the Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents hundreds of Sunni clerics from across the country, came after others, among them the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political party, had signaled they would now support the charter. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority provides the backbone of the guerilla insurgency, which has intensified as the referendum approaches.

"We call on the people to boycott the referendum or to vote no," a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, said today at a news conference at the Um al-Qura mosque in Baghdad. He said that even with the latest amendment, the charter risked the breakup of Iraq and added that no constitution that was agreed to while the American-led coalition forces were still in the country could be considered legitimate.

Mr. Qubaisi also urged the Iraqi Islamic Party to withdraw its backing from the charter.

"The amendment was a trap," he said.

At least two other Sunni leaders, Adnan al-Dulaimi of the Conference of the Iraqi People and Kamal Hamdoon, a Sunni member of the constitution drafting committee, have also said that they would continue to oppose the constitution.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Iraqi Islamic Party justified their decision to back the charter.

"We were keen that Iraq should be stable," said Ayad al-Samarraie, a senior party official. "We didn't want this country to be in a state of turmoil because of constitutional disputes."

Mr. Samarraie added that he believed Sunni Arab support of the constitution and of the December legislative elections would give Sunnis more representation in the new parliament and thus a greater chance of pushing through desired changes to the charter.

There were faint signs of movement among other Sunni leaders as well.

"It's a hard fact that if we want to achieve our demands of freeing the country from occupation, we have to engage in the political process to do so," another influential Sunni, Mahmood al-Mashhadani, said in an interview on Wednesday. "We will call on all the voters to say yes, because there is no meaning in saying no."

Former President Ghazi al-Yawar, who had conspicuously failed to show up in August for a ceremony announcing the completion of the constitution, also publicly endorsed the document on Wednesday.

The National Assembly adopted the revisions to the draft constitution Wednesday evening, when no one raised any objections to the proposal. There was no vote.

The mixed reaction among Sunni leaders, while perhaps not quite what the Iraqi government and its American backers were hoping for, suggested that the strategy of driving a wedge into the Sunni population was showing some success.

The announcement by Iraqi Islamic Party leaders appeared to enrage some insurgent leaders. In a statement released on the Internet, one insurgent group, the Victorious Army Group, declared war on the party for approving "the infidel constitution." It declared the party's top two leaders, Mohsen Hamid and Tariq al-Hashemi, to be apostates from Islam and singled them out for death.

"They should receive from the mujahedeen their fate," said the statement, which was translated by SITE, a Washington group that tracks insurgent communications on the Internet.

Al Arabiya, the Arabic language television network, reported on Wednesday that the party's offices in Falluja had been bombed. An employee of The New York Times who went to the site could not gain sufficient access to confirm the report.

With the vote only three days away, violence flared across the country on Wednesday. In the northern town of Tal Afar, a man wearing an explosive belt pressed himself into a group of men standing outside an army recruiting center and blew himself up, killing at least 30 Iraqis and wounding 35 more, many of whom suffered severe burns and severed limbs. The attack followed a similar bombing on Tuesday, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a market crowded with shoppers, killing at least 24 Iraqis.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicted on Wednesday that the changes in the Iraqi constitution would prompt increased attacks by insurgents bent on derailing the political process. "They'll be even more aggressive, I would suspect, between now and Oct. 15," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him at a regional security conference near Miami. "The last thing in the world the enemies want is success."

In Baghdad, Iraqi leaders hailed the agreement with the Iraqi Islamic Party as all but ensuring that the constitution would be approved. Sunnis are thought to constitute a majority in only three of Iraq's provinces, and they can defeat the constitution only if they muster two-thirds' majorities of the votes in all three provinces. On the basis of their numbers alone, such an outcome has been considered unlikely.

"We were confident before, but now we are totally confident," said Ali Dabagh, a member of the Shiite alliance that holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly.

For weeks, the greatest concern of Iraqi and American leaders has been that the constitution would pass, but without significant Sunni support, possibly driving more Iraqis toward violence. That would undercut one of the principal goals of the American-backed democratic process, to co-opt the insurgency by giving more Sunnis a stake in Iraq's future.

But with the insurgency as vibrant and deadly as ever and the refusal of Sunni leaders since August to support the proposed constitution, the deal on Tuesday was one of the first signs that the political process might be starting to have its intended effect.

Over all, Sunni voters are expected to turn out in significant numbers on Saturday, though many Iraqi leaders predict that the Sunnis will vote overwhelmingly against the constitution.

Harb Al-Mukhtarand Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Eric Schmitt from Key Biscayne, Fla.