Sunni Arabs Rally to Protest Proposed Iraqi Constitution

By ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

August 26, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 26 - With Iraq's new constitution still in limbo, thousands of Sunni Arabs rallied in central and northern Iraq on Friday to protest the proposed draft.

In Kirkuk, in the north, more than 2,000 Sunnis marched in the streets after Friday Prayer, chanting "No to federalism," "Iraq is the home of all" and "Baathists are loyal Iraqis." In Baquba, a largely Sunni city northeast of Baghdad, several thousand people marched, some carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein, whose Baath Party kept the Sunni minority in power for years.

Sunni political leaders have refused to agree to the draft constitution in large part because a Shiite proposal would create a vast autonomous region in Iraq's oil-rich south. The Sunnis say that proposal - which would parallel the federal zone governed by the Kurds in northern Iraq - could cripple the Iraqi state and allow neighboring Iran to dominate the Shiite south.

"Kirkuk's Arabs refuse any constitution that would divide the country by different names, which is at odds with Islam and with the Arabic nation of Iraq," said Sheik Abdul Rahman Mished, the leader of Kirkuk's Arab Assembly. With its volatile ethnic mix of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmens, Kirkuk has been particularly vulnerable to fears of sectarian division.

Many Sunnis are also concerned about constitutional proposals that would ban any symbols or remnants of the Baath Party, long dominated by Sunnis, which they see as an effort to exclude them from public life.

The demonstrations came as American F-18D fighter jets bombed and destroyed a building in northwestern Iraq where about 50 members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia were believed to be hiding, the United States military said in a statement.

Residents had alerted American forces that suspected terrorists were gathering in the building, just outside Husayba, near the Syrian border, where fierce fighting has broken out repeatedly between militants and marines in recent months. It was not yet clear how many people were killed in Friday's air strikes, the military said.

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who is Iraq's most-wanted man.

Also on Friday, followers of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr clashed with the police in Karbala, overrunning a police station and freeing some prisoners.

In Baghdad and two southern cities, thousands of Mr. Sadr's followers staged peaceful demonstrations, denouncing the American presence, deploring the state of Iraq's electricity and water supplies, and lashing out at rival Shiite groups.

Members of Mr. Sadr's militia engaged in street battles on Wednesday and Thursday with rival Shiites belonging to the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. On Thursday Mr. Sadr appealed for calm, as did Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is the leader of Dawa, another Shiite party.

But lingering tensions between Mr. Sadr's followers and their Shiite rivals were palpable on Friday, as Sheik Abdul Zahra al-Suwaidi delivered a sermon before several thousand people under a baking sun in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad.

"We have stayed silent for a long time and extended hands of reconciliation and brotherhood, favoring the welfare of the nation and religion," Mr. Suwaidi said. "But they went too far when they dared to attack the Sadr office."

Mr. Sadr, who led two violent uprisings last year against American and Iraqi forces, has joined Sunnis in recent weeks in denouncing Shiite proposals for a federal region in southern Iraq. He has engaged for years in a power struggle with more mainstream Shiites at the Supreme Council and Dawa, sometimes violently.

Violence continued to ripple across Iraq on Friday. Gunmen opened fire on an Iraqi Army patrol in the Dawra neighborhood of southern Baghdad, killing one soldier, an Interior Ministry official said. Nearby, a roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol close to the Dawra oil refinery, killing one officer and wounding two, the official said.

In Mosul, in the north, gunmen shot and killed Jiyad Hussein, the leader of the local branch of the Reform Party, along with his son, in an industrial area on the city's eastern side.

Fakher Haidar contributed reporting from Basra for this article, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed from Kirkuk, Mosul and Najaf.